Why Do Masks Make it Difficult to Communicate?

This year we’ve all become accustomed to wearing masks in public. Wearing a mask is an important way to reduce the spread of COVID-19, as it reduces the number of airborne droplets that carry the virus. Masks are a simple and effective way to support public health efforts, something everyone benefits from. 

Unfortunately, masks have a downside, especially for those living with hearing loss. Masks create barriers to clear communication which may make everyday interactions frustrating, confusing or just plain difficult. Let’s take a look at what some of the communication challenges with masks are and some strategies to help make things easier for those with hearing loss. 

Muffled Sound

For most people with significant hearing loss, they are able to hear sound, but it lacks clarity. Speech may be recognized, but then it comes across as too muffled or mumbled to decipher. Now, with the addition of masks, another layer is added to the muffled effect. Sound waves from voices are significantly dampened by cloth and fiber masks, which can make the already difficult job of comprehending speech nearly impossible.

No Direction

Hearing loss not only affects our ability to detect sounds, it also can limit our means of accurately sourcing a sound. In normal hearing, our ears perform a near instantaneous calibration that uses the slight difference between the time it takes a soundwave to reach each of our ears and triangulates the direction the sound is coming from. With hearing loss, less sensory information is being detected by our ears, and finding the source of a sound becomes similarly impaired.

Masks can make that directional sound information even less accessible for people with hearing loss. Masks diffuse sound and eliminate some of the visual cues that someone is speaking (i.e. seeing a person’s lips move). So, not only is it harder to understand sounds, it is also harder to recognize where they are coming from. 

No Lips To Read

Another important communication tool that masks restrict is the ability of a hearing-impaired person to assist their comprehension by reading lips. A lot of people with hearing loss rely on seeing a speaker’s mouth move to help them determine which consonant and vowel sounds are being expressed. Lip reading is often developed intuitively, out of necessity, and significantly boosts comprehension for those with limited hearing. 

By and large, facial masks are opaque (look for some information about clear panelled masks below). This blocks lip reading on a fundamental level, making distinguishing speech sounds especially difficult and can lead to misunderstanding.

Keep the Mask On

It is important to continue to use masks in public until widespread vaccination is a reality. With that in mind, it is important to recognize how challenging masks are making communication, especially for people with pre-existing hearing challenges. 

Even if you are lucky enough to have healthy hearing, you may be noticing that it is harder to understand speech through masks and facial barriers. Always take into consideration when you are speaking that people may have trouble hearing you. Don’t take hearing challenges personally, simply take the time to repeat yourself, or clarify your message in writing or hand gesture. Recognize that those with hearing issues will have an especially hard time recognizing if someone is speaking and that communication in these trying times is going to take extra empathy.

Clear Communication

One strategy that many people are adopting is to wear snug-fitted protective masks with a clear panel to better facilitate lip reading. While clear panels don’t get rid of the challenges brought on by masks muffling sound, they do help speakers communicate, both through mouth movements and facial expressions. When purchasing a mask, look for clear panelled masks made with anti-fogging material to make sure the visual of your mouth is not blocked by condensation from your breath. 

Tech Tools

If you live with hearing loss, there are other strategies to help make communication during this time easier. To start with, shift some of your conversations with friends into texting, even if you are sharing the same space. The clarity of written communication can take some of the pressure off your hearing.

Even if you hadn’t considered them before, now might be the right time to begin using hearing aids. Hearing aids can effectively manage nearly every configuration of hearing loss, making speech and sound clearer and more focused. Hearing aids increase your comprehension and many boast fantastic features like the ability to stream sound from your digital devices directly to your hearing aid.