Masked Communication

September 21, 2020

Rex Banks, Au.D., Reg. CASLPO | Doctor of Audiology
Director, Hearing Health, Quality & Knowledge Enterprise 

In response to COVID-19, face masks have instantly become front and centre across the world as an important way of stopping the spread.  Everywhere you look, people are wearing face masks.  This presents some new challenges for everyone, but especially for Deaf and hard of hearing people. 

The first challenge that masks present is that they muffle sound, making it more difficult to understand speech, particularly in the high frequencies.  They also take away our ability to speech read and see facial expressions – which project intent and tone during communication.  For Deaf people, masks affect aspects of American Sign Language (ASL) grammar which appears on the face. In addition, masks can be uncomfortable for people who wear hearing aids or cochlear implants and increase susceptibility of losing devices while removing their mask.

There are many different types of masks made of a variety of materials – surgical, N95s, cotton, spandex blends, denim, twill, bedsheet, and clear masks with a vinyl or PVC window in them.   Several studies have recently shown that the standard 3-layer surgical mask degrades speech the least compared to other masks.  And while clear masks with a vinyl or PVC windows allow for speech reading, they degrade speech the most compared to other masks. Communication problems are further compounded with distortion once a face shield is applied on top of the mask.  The speech sounds most affected by the face shield and mask are high frequency consonants such as “s”, “th” and “f”.  These sounds are already difficult to hear in the presence of background noise -so masks and face shields exasperate the problem. 

Physical distancing can also create challenges for communication.    Speech can sound quieter because sound levels go down with distance.  As well, focusing your attention on speech can be harder at a distance with other background sounds in the environment.   Because we are distanced, we can’t lean in or get closer, or use other similar strategies, to help fix a communication breakdown.  It’s also more difficult to see visual cues, such as facial expression and speakers’ lips, at a distance.

Helpful Tips for Improved Communication

If you have hearing aids or a cochlear implant, wear them during communication, as not having them on will only make things more difficult.  Many of us tend to fidget with our masks  or take them off several times a day, which causes a risk for accidentally losing your hearing device in the process.  To help avoid losing your hearing aid or cochlear implant, make sure to secure your device with non-damaging material, like wig tape, a cloth headband or an ear saver, and take them off in a safe place, then check to make sure it’s working. 

When wearing a mask and practicing physical distancing, ensure you have your communication partner’s attention, face them and make sure nothing is blocking your view.  Move to a quiet place if you can or try to reduce background noise around you. When speaking, talk a little louder, a little slower and enunciate as best as possible. Use your hands and body language to emphasize points.  Ask your partner if they understood you; if not, say it a different way, write it down or use a speech to text app.  If you’re talking with someone new, ask if there’s anything you can do to make communication easier for both of you.

If you suspect you’re having difficulty with hearing, contact Canadian Hearing Services for a hearing test.  If you have a hearing loss, our dedicated staff will help find the best solution to meet your lifestyle and communication needs.  If you already have hearing aids, make an appointment so we can check to make sure they are working and functioning properly.

 “Masked communication” is the reality for now.  As we are all in this together, let’s make sure we can communicate with each other – even while wearing our masks.