Face masks have dramatically changed the way many of us communicate in public. The CDC recommends we wear them to prevent against the spread of COVID-19. That extra layer of protection does have a few side effects, especially for the hearing impaired. Face masks can reduce sound by as much as 12 decibels and block one’s facial expressions from being seen.
“The ‘mask effect’ affects everyone! Those with normal hearing are noticing that sounds are somewhat muffled, and they struggle to hear,” said Devon Weist, audiology clinical instructor in the University of South Florida (USF) College of Behavioral and Community Sciences and director of the USF Hearing Clinic. “Imagine trying to hear through a mask with hearing loss. Effective communication becomes extremely difficult and sometimes impossible. In addition, facial expressions can no longer be seen, which are an important nonverbal communication cue those with hearing loss rely on.”
USF audiologists and interpreters are utilizing a new type of mask, the Face View Mask, that allows them to more effectively communicate with patients, according to an announcement on the USF website. Instead of it covering everything below the eyes, a clear plastic window replaces fabric around the mouth. This provides patients greater understanding of what the speaker is saying.
“Many people who are hearing challenged are reading lip and mouth movements, often more than we realize. Without the ability to see the mouth and lip movements of a speaker, we cannot ‘hear’ what is being said,” said Tami Stone, who recently received a cochlear implant. “It would be wonderful if workers in the customer service industry, such as cashiers, who speak in person to clients daily, could have similar masks that permit a customer or client to see the mouth and lips of the speaker. That would certainly promote greater understanding and comprehension during a conversation.”
Patricia Carr, an audiologist with the USF Hearing Clinic who is hearing impaired herself, has been sewing the new masks in between prepping and teaching online.
“We rely on a person’s facial expressions when communicating, whether you have normal hearing or hearing loss, to put meaning to what is being said,” Carr said. “When masks are being worn, we miss out on the personality each person brings to the conversation. Just hearing the words is not enough. Masks tend to make people less friendly, less caring, more formal, less engaging, more uptight, and more confused.”
The USF Hearing Clinic within the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders sees about 1,200 patients a year. It just started resuming in-person appointments after converting to telehealth to comply with social distancing guidelines. For additional safety measures, audiologists and staff members wear a face shield over their mask during appointments to protect the patient and themselves, while continuing best practices for communication. The clinic is also offering curbside hearing aid and cochlear implant device checks, allowing them to be safely cleaned and inspected while the patient waits in their car.
The Face View Masks have been generously made by the audiologists and their family members, audiology students, and the community organization, Tampa Gems Sertoma Club.