Communicating through face masks can cause challenges for people with hearing loss

People who rely on lip reading face difficulties when interacting with those in face coverings
Published: Aug. 6, 2020 at 5:30 PM CDT
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EAU CLAIRE, Wis. (WEAU) - Health officials continue to recommend face coverings to prevent the spread of COVID-19, but the masks can cause difficulties for people with hearing loss.

People who rely on lip reading may be facing some communication anxiety according to Prevea Health audiologist Dr. Shawna Lee.

“People with high tone hearing loss, which is very prevalent, they sometimes can’t hear those sounds so having the lips to see and understand can be helpful,” Lee says. “What we are noticing is with the use of masks in more spaces they can no longer utilize those tools so whether they know they have hearing loss or didn’t know they have hearing issues, they are now starting to notice they are having some trouble.”

She says masks can also muffle speech, with N95 masks reducing sound by as much as 12 decibels.

One of Lee’s patients, Colleen Giles-Harris has been dealing with hearing loss her whole life, heavily relying on lip reading before she got hearing aids last year.

“It is crazy how much better I can hear now but the pandemic has caused a real challenge with the face masks,” Giles-Harris says. “Even though I have hearing aids I still use lip reading to help me pick out specific things and the facial cues.”

Giles-Harris says tasks like going to the grocery store have become more difficult with this communication barrier.

“I find I am not as talkative as I was before because I don’t want to struggle to hear them whereas I am normally a very talkative person I find I am quieter now,” she says.

Lee deals with hearing loss herself and says to help people can speak louder, enunciate and decrease background noise. If it is safe, Lee says speaking to someone with a 3 to 5 ft. distance between them is most helpful. Clear face masks are also beneficial for people who interact with those with hearing loss.

Shelly Elkin, an educational audiologist has been preparing schools in western Wisconsin to deal with this new challenge ahead of the new school year, encouraging the use of clear face masks, plexiglass and the use of audio distribution systems like speakers.

Elkin says the face coverings can even present challenges for kids without hearing impairment.

“The auditory system is continuing to develop until about 15 years old so they really need additional auditory cues to develop speech and language and literacy skills,” Elkin says.

As health officials continue to advise face coverings to prevent the spread of COVID-19, Giles-Harris wants the community to keep people like her in mind.

“Just speak louder, enunciate, slow down your speech patterns all of those things make a big difference,”Giles-Harris says.

Lee recommends people with hearing impairment speak up if they need to talk louder. People can also utilize tools like speech to text phone apps.

Some apps recommended by Prevea Health include EyeHear for iPhone and Google Live Transcribe for Google/Android.

Clear face masks can be purchased at and

Copyright 2020 WEAU. All rights reserved.

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