If you've ordered a cup of coffee or met up with friends in the COVID-19 era, you've likely experienced firsthand how difficult it can be to understand language when it's muffled under a mask.
For the deaf and people with hearing loss, masks are an even bigger barrier to effective communication.
"We don't know how often we use visual cues to understand speech, even for people who don't have hearing loss," Shannon MacDonald, AuD, North Carolina audiologist, told Medical Daily. “It can be difficult to communicate with a mask. Eye expressions can only do so much. "
Deaf people often rely on lip reading to understand language – something that is impossible with the speaker wearing a traditional cloth mask. Others with hearing problems may have difficulty understanding speech when the words are muffled under the speaker's mask.
Enter ClearMask, the first fully transparent, FDA-cleared mask. Dr. MacDonald spotted the company looking for a way to help their patients better understand them during the pandemic as masks continue to be needed to prevent the coronavirus from spreading.
“I recently had a patient who had really severe hearing loss. He has two hearing aids and when I wear a mask it is really difficult to use clear speech because so much of it is attenuated. Using a clear mask really made a huge difference to him, ”said Dr. MacDonald.
The masks are not recommended for use in surgical settings or in locations where significant exposure is expected. But if Dr. MacDonald advises a patient and practices social distancing, the clear masks are safe to use.
“With the clear masks my patients can read my lips. You can see more of my face and know if I'm smiling or making a certain expression, ”said Dr. MacDonald. "Just being able to see me speak can they put things together and find out what is being said, even when my voice is muffled."
She said her office invited patients' family members to join them in appointments so they can go through other communication strategies to improve their understanding of speech while wearing masks.
Tips to help people understand you
Being in the same room as the person you're speaking to and reducing background noise can help people with hearing loss understand you better through your mask, said Dr. MacDonald. She also recommends speaking clearly, speaking slowly, and emphasizing sharp consonants – what she calls “clear speech”.
Don't yell or just speak loudly, said Dr. MacDonald as it can distort speech even more for people with hearing loss and hearing aids.
One in eight people age 12 and older in the United States has hearing loss, including half of those age 75 and over, according to the National Institutes of Health.
"You don't always know who you're talking to, so it is important to have a little grace if someone is having trouble understanding you with a mask on," said Dr. MacDonald.
Many of her patients wear hearing aids, but speech can still be difficult to understand when she is in a situation where there is a lot of background noise (e.g. in a grocery store).
"My patients all carry cards that they can use when out in public," said Dr. MacDonald. "The cards basically say," I have hearing loss and / or hearing aids. Please try to use clear language and be patient with me. "This is one way that people with hearing loss can stand up for themselves."