Masks present new challenges to hearing impaired

Annita “Kay” Ile Tyberg wears a mask with a clear window to allow those who have hearing loss read lips.

Wearing a mask is an adjustment, but for people with diminished hearing or no hearing, masks present an additional and significant communication challenge as they hide facial expressions and prohibit speech reading and lip reading.

An advocate for the deaf community, Annita “Kay” Ile Tyberg, is trying to raise awareness of this new challenge to those with all types of hearing issues, as people wear protective masks to try to limit the spread of COVID-19.

Hearing loss — an invisible disability — varies among individuals. Methods for communication that a person with a hearing impairment uses also vary. Not all deaf or hard of hearing people lip-read, Tyberg said. But masks inhibit the reading of facial expressions, something that is especially critical for those with hearing loss.

“I went out today to the grocery store, Home Depot and Lowe’s. The experiences I encountered knocked me off my feet,” Tyberg said in a text. “It was not pleasant. I came home after walking Peyton (her dog) around the entire Logan shopping plaza exhausted from visually watching people. Checkout counter personnel were no help at all. It hit me — you can’t read people by their eyes alone.”

Masks hamper speech clarity, reducing speech volume by about 12 decibels, Tyberg said. And physical distancing — standing 6 feet apart — makes it even more difficult to lip-read.

“The communication barrier heightens, and the dialogue becomes one-way or no communication,” she said. Many of the communication tools — such as video conferencing through Zoom and Skype — help connect hearing intact people with others, but many with hearing loss are not familiar with this technology.

Tyberg said she has encountered difficulties and has asked people to remove their masks so she could speech- or lip-read, “but they decline.” Other challenges for people with hearing impairments include not facing the speaker, mustaches and beards, and chewing gum, she said.

Tyberg is among the

1.2 million Pennsylvanians with hearing loss, according to Melissa Hawkins, director of the Office for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, under the state Department of Labor and Industry. Hawkins, who is also deaf, offered these communication tips via a video posted on the state’s coronavirus web site:

– Use a text app on a phone or iPad.

– Write notes.

– Use a communication board.

– Hawkins also emphasized and encouraged all Pennsylvanians to be patient with each other.

Patience and “thinking creatively and outside the box” is key, said audiologist Karen Lemme of Lemme Audiology Associates in Altoona.

“People who are communicating with those with hearing loss need to be more patient,” Lemme said. “Be conscientious and patient with them.” Yelling doesn’t help. Instead, Lemme and Tyberg both said it is more effective to alter word choice because some words are more easily understood than others. A lower pitch or tone is also helpful. Lemme said many people lose the ability to hear higher tones.

Tyberg also suggests that people articulate their words rather than mumble, and slow down the rate of speech.

Lemme said her office has been trying to find see-through masks but hasn’t been successful as they have been on back order since the pandemic began.

Lemme Audiology, as an essential business, has offered contactless curbside dropoff for people who need repairs to hearing aids.

In conversations with other professionals, Lemme said the incidence of lost hearing aids has increased. She suggests hearing aid wearers “become very conscientious” when putting masks on or off so the hearing aids don’t become dislodged and lost. It’s helpful to hold the aid in place as masks are removed, she said.

Mirror Staff Writer Patt Keith is at 949-7030.


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