StopGap Foundation is committed to an inclusive, barrier-free world. While the primary focus has been on physical barriers, StopGap also advocates for barrier-free communication.
In this new physically distanced world, keeping safe and minimizing transmission of COVID-19 is on everyone’s mind. Along with washing hands, keeping 2 meters apart (when possible), and minimizing non-essential outings, wearing face masks in public (for individuals who can do so safely) has recently been added to the list of recommendations for stopping the spread of the virus. Unfortunately, this poses problems for the roughly three million Canadians who have some degree of hearing impairment.
Worn properly, conventional face masks fully cover the nose and mouth, muffling speech and making lip-reading impossible. Most of us use lip-reading to some extent to aid in communicating without even realizing it, but it is especially important for those with hearing impairment. Without the ability to lip-read, daily tasks can be challenging.
The problems associated with these face mask recommendations haven’t been lost on healthcare leaders. First, it is important to note that face mask use is not safe for everyone. The Chief Public Health Officer of Canada, Theresa Tam, highlighted barriers that Canadians with disabilities may encounter with the widespread use of face masks in an address to the public. The United Nations also called for more attention to be paid to those with disabilities, who may be disproportionately impacted by the pandemic .
But what can we do to help Canadians with a hearing impairment?
1. If you are able to wear a face mask, consider choosing one with a clear insert : By having a clear insert over the mouth, lip-reading and facial cues are more visible, making speech more easily understood and communication more successful. Mass-produced masks with clear inserts are coming soon but are not yet readily available. In the interim it is possible to create your own.
Example DIY Facemask (with clear window): https://docs.google.com/document/d/101jOfK9OvHx1911km9z69oImfL2BsjfbsDWPXZg7eA4/mobilebasic
2. Consider a face shield : Another option is a completely transparent face shield which allows for lipreading and facial gestures. Like face masks, face shields can be made at home with simple materials from office and craft supply stores. They also come with a set of advantages – they are reusable, easily cleaned, and can reduce virus inhalation from 6 feet by 92%! To be most effective, face shields should extend below the chin and to the ears with no exposed gap between the face shield and the forehead.
Example DIY face shield: https://qz.com/1839582/how-to-make-ppe-face-shields-for-healthcare-workers-at-home/
3. Optimize verbal communication: There are a number of simple strategies that can be used to make verbal communication more effective, even when using a mask. Slowing down your rate of speech gives your communication partner more time to process your message. Clearly articulating your words always makes for easier communication, but it is especially important when visual cues like lip-reading and facial expressions are hindered my masks. Avoiding monotone speech and using intonation can be incredibly helpful, as the animation in a person’s voice not only conveys a great deal of meaning but also makes words easier to distinguish in speech. Finally, facing your communication partner and maintaining eye contact is still important even when a mask is worn, because more sound will reach the person and they will be able to tell more easily when a message is directed at them.
4. Reduce background noise: Background noise makes it difficult for everyone to communicate – think about how difficult it is to have a conversation in a loud restaurant or concert. Even small amounts of background noise can make communication more difficult for individuals with hearing loss. Moving to a quieter environment can help the conversation continue.
5. Use a transcription app: A transcription app on your phone (e.g. Apple Notes on iOS or Google Live Transcribe for Android) can help facilitate communication in difficult situations.
Google Live Transcribe: https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.google.audio.hearing.visualization.accessibility.scribe&hl=en_CA
Apple Notes: https://apps.apple.com/us/app/notes/id1110145109
Making small changes to the way you communicate, both in and out of a mask, can have a profound impact on the ability for those of us with hearing impairments to communicate. Interacting with others is especially important in these challenging times. By helping reduce the barriers that individuals with hearing impairment face, we can help facilitate communication and minimize feelings of isolation.