New normal practices mute the world for the hard of hearing


Face masks with a clear plastic panel allow hard-of-hearing people to lip-read, but are difficult to manufacture according to proper safety standards and comfort. — Filepic

Covid-19 is adversely influencing the effective communication of many hard-of-hearing people of different ages.

Hearing loss presents with different levels of severity from mild, moderate and severe to profound.

In this article, hard of hearing refers to people with any degree of hearing loss.

The risk of hearing loss increases with age.

Nearly 24% of people aged 65 to 74 experience some form of hearing impairment.

Around 3% to 5% of adolescents also have some degree of hearing loss.

Communication during this pandemic is adversely affected for these people due to the new normal practice of wearing face masks and the transition from in-person to virtual learning for students.

Blocking sound and mouth

The Health Ministry strongly encourages the wearing of face masks or cloth coverings in public places in order to prevent the spread of Covid-19.

However, it is important to realise that this covering of much of the face can impose a significant barrier to effective communication for people with hearing impairments.

The use of a face mask can reduce the volume of high frequency sounds by three to 12 decibels, depending on the type of mask.

Therefore, it is likely that those who are hard of hearing might miss important pieces of information due to this sound-dampening quality of face masks.

People with hearing loss also tend to rely heavily on lip-reading for communication.

Lip-reading is a naturally-developed skill that helps those hard of hearing to better cope with their hearing loss.

It involves watching the speaker’s face to figure out the cues provided by the movements of their mouth, teeth and tongue to understand what is being said.

With face masks, this is impossible as much of the face, including the mouth, is covered.

Thus, the use of face masks causes the combined effects of more muffled sound and loss of visual cues from not being able to lip-read, creating communication difficulties for those hard of hearing.

Clear masks or cloth masks with a clear plastic panel are an alternative to allow better interaction with people with hearing loss.

However, it can be quite a challenge to design and develop a mask that provides both adequate protection based on safety standards, as well as comfort.

The other option currently available is the transparent face shield, which allows lip-reading and does not dampen sound like a face mask.

However, it does not provide the needed filtration for small particles like a face mask does.

Doubly difficult

Last year, more than half of teaching and learning activities across all education levels shifted online due to the pandemic.

This trend is likely to continue this year if our Covid-19 case numbers remain high.

Some of us may see this as necessary and convenient, but what about students who are hard of hearing?

Background noise, feedback and poor Internet connections that disrupt the audio and visuals of virtual classes are a nuisance to all students.

However, they affect those with hearing impairments far more seriously.

These students may face difficulty separating the background noise from the teacher’s voice, or lose track of what is being said when the audio and visual cues are interrupted.

If you are a teacher, you may want to keep a special lookout for students who are hard of hearing.

Consider the possibility of hearing issues in students who appear to have extra difficulty in following online classes and speak to their parents about it.

Parents of young children with hearing difficulties might also want to consider talking to their child’s teachers about ways to further help their child learn better.

Enhancing virtual learning

There are many ways to make virtual learning a better experience and more accessible for hard-of-hearing students.

Certain features on online teaching platforms can be utilised to enhance delivery of the teaching content.

Automated captions, also known as Automatic Speech Recognition (ASR), allow the teacher’s words to be automatically transcribed.

As ASR has a high error rate, it is important for teachers to speak slowly and distinctly to allow for better transcription.

Keeping the camera on the teacher allows a hard-of-hearing student to lip-read.

It is important that the camera is situated at a good angle and at a certain distance from the speaker’s face so that their mouth can be seen clearly.

Questions and answers from the teacher and other students should not only be asked verbally, but also typed into the general chat box, to ensure that students with hearing impairments do not miss out on any important information.

Recording the classes or lectures is a useful step in case any of the students have issues with their Internet connection.

For hard-of-hearing students, it provides a sense of assurance that they can view the recording in case they missed any information during class due to their condition.

Non-speakers must mute themselves in order to reduce background noise and allow students with hearing difficulties to focus on one speaker or interaction at a time.

Speakers should also slow down the pace of their speech as this helps all students to follow what they are trying to impart.

Students with hearing impairments may need to connect their computer’s audio directly to a hearing assistive device such as a hearing aid or cochlear implant processor, or to noise-reducing headphones, to further help their hearing ability.

Other online platform features such as whiteboards and break-out rooms, may be beneficial to hard-of-hearing people.

Thus, a little bit of technology literacy can significantly enhance virtual teaching and learning activities, particularly for those hard of hearing.

In a nutshell, we need to be aware of the communication barriers that exist from complying with the safety precautions during this pandemic for people with hearing loss.

By addressing such issues, we can help ensure that they receive the equal treatment they deserve.

Dr Irma Izani Mohamad Isa is a pharmacology lecturer who is hard-of-hearing and Nur Arfah Zaini is a lecturer and clinical psychologist at the Perdana University-Royal College of Surgeons Ireland. This article is courtesy of Perdana University. For more information, email starhealth@thestar.com.my. The information provided is for educational and communication purposes only and it should not be construed as personal medical advice. Information published in this article is not intended to replace, supplant or augment a consultation with a health professional regarding the reader’s own medical care. The Star disclaims all responsibility for any losses, damage to property or personal injury suffered directly or indirectly from reliance on such information.

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