Green Valley resident Dale Sprinkle doesn’t have traditional hearing loss. He said he could hear a pin drop. But the room would have to be quiet.
His hearing was damaged during his time in the military; he can hear voices but he can’t always understand them.
“I can hear people talking plainly but it sounds like they’re speaking Chinese,” he said. “I have hearing aids that segregate the sounds and focus on the range where my hearing problem is. I have to have that in order to discern what words are.”
Masks have made communication more difficult, and he's not alone. For the deaf or hard of hearing, new challenges have presented themselves with the wearing of masks in public places.
“I definitely have a problem hearing people with masks; it’s not impossible but I have to listen carefully,” he said. “I can't watch people talk and that does enhance my hearing a bit when I’m looking at someone talking.”
Along with covering a person’s mouth, most masks Sprinkle has tried are difficult to wear with his style of hearing aids.
“I need a mask that ties behind the head because the ones that go around the ears tend to hook onto my hearing aid,” he said. “Sometimes when I take off the mask the hearing aid goes flying and a $5 mask versus $5,000 hearing aids is not a good trade-off.”
Mouth movement and facial expressions are a key aspect in communicating, not just for people who have trouble hearing. While face coverings are required in most public places due to COVID-19, they make it difficult for people who rely on lip reading, mouth movements in American Sign Language or facial cues.
Sprinkle said one of the biggest things that would help him in his communication is a little understanding from others.
“It would be nice if people would be patient with those of us who are hard of hearing because it’s not our choice to be here,” he said. “I have to ask people to repeat themselves, I have to do that quite often, and some people get an annoyed look on their face.”
Stan Kruggel is the treasurer for the Adult Loss of Hearing Association (ALOHA), a Tucson organization that provides resources and information to people who have hearing loss. Their group offers discussions and opportunities to try out different types of assistive hearing devices.
Kruggel said those who are hard of hearing often rely on visual cues in the face to communicate.
“Hard of hearing people, even people who are mildly hard of hearing, do depend a bit on lip reading or what we call speech reading which involves the whole face and body, the eyes and even the tongue,” he said. “It helps us immensely and a lot of us with hearing loss do speech reading unconsciously.”
Kruggel has hearing issues himself and has a cochlear implant in one ear and hearing aid in the other.
He said masks make it difficult to read lips and they also muffle someone’s voice, which complicates things further. Many who have hearing issues already have trouble hearing parts of words or whole words.
“Most that have hearing loss have high frequency loss and in speech, consonants are high frequency so they’re just hearing vowels; it makes it tough,” he said. “When we miss words, sometimes two or three out of a sentence, our brain is trying to fill the words in. It’s very tiring for our brains at the end of the day filling in all those words we are missing.”
Kruggel uses a mask that he’s written “Hard of Hearing” on as a way to let people know around him that he has hearing loss. ALOHA also has pins people can wear to let others know they lip read or have hearing problems. It’s a step that helps, but it doesn’t totally eliminate the struggles, especially now.
How to help
He recommended several steps for both people who are hard of hearing and those communicating with them.
Always stand to face each other, speak clearly and at an even pace, make sure the speaker has a light on them to make the visible facial expressions clearer and if it’s safe to distance six feet apart, temporarily lower the mask to speak.
Kruggle said if people have patience when communicating with those hard of hearing, it makes a big difference.
“A cardinal problem we hate is when we ask someone ‘what’ a couple times and they say never mind,” he said. “If it was important enough to say it, it's important enough for us to hear it. Don't just say never mind.”
Masks with clear portions over the mouth make the lips visible but are not a perfect solution. They are less widely available, cost a little more and still cover a good portion of the face.
Kruggel said ALOHA has advocated their use in doctor and dentist offices and other important services for years before COVID-19.
The Arizona Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing is a statewide organization that works to support residents who are deaf and have hearing problems.
Executive Director Sherri Collins said there are 1.1 million Arizonans who are deaf or hard of hearing and the pandemic has caused additional challenges for people in communicating, including herself as she wears hearing aids.
“For those with hearing problems, when everyone is wearing a mask, they can't see their whole facial expression and even hearing people want to know if the person is smiling or what their tone is,” she said. “I’ll be honest, it’s stressful and I don't go out unless I have to.”
The commission decided early on to try and make clear masks accessible to people in the state, but they were not easy to find. They purchased about 20,000 clear masks to provide statewide and they’ve all been given out.
Collins said they are currently in the process of getting more and making them available for free to residents in the state.
People can go to their website and place an order for up to five masks per request. They will be put on a waiting list and Collins is hopeful they’ll be able to restock by the end of August.
As well as the clear masks, Collins had suggestions to improve communications during this time.
“I always try to be proactive and there is some concern with uncovering your face because we don't want you to take your mask down if it's not safe,” she said. “Writing back and forth or having a picture or menu to point to, a tool, can help.”
Another struggle she mentioned for hard of hearing or deaf people during COVID-19 is access to information. With a lot of vital information going out to the public through state and local municipalities, she said it is important public information is available to everyone, including those with hearing impairments.
“Any information provided, whether it’s a PSA or something online, make sure there is captioning in the video or an ASL translator,” she said. “One challenge is that a lot of COVID-19 information is heavy English so I remind people when they are sharing information and communicating to make sure it’s inclusive.”
The bright side
The commission offers a number of resources to help those who are hard of hearing or deaf, including free telephone communication devices, a telephone relay service and information on how to improve communication.
Kruggel said there are some positives in this situation. ALOHA has been using Zoom to conduct meetings and while some older members are unconfident in the technology, ALOHA’s office manager can train people how to use it.
“The advantage of Zoom is that some members have moved and now they are joining our meetings,” he said. “With Zoom, there's pluses and minus. It’s not a live interaction but we’re keeping communication going and in some ways it’s even better because we’re getting people remotely from all over.”
He said ALOHA was a huge help to him when he was in the process of getting his cochlear implant and he hopes others may turn to ALOHA for support.
“When I decided to get my cochlear implant, my audiologist said I was getting withdrawn,” he said. “I had stopped going to do things because I got tired of pretending I heard the joke. ALOHA were so helpful to me and volunteering is me wanting to give back and help other people when I can.”