Hearing Loss and Mask Wearing :: A Unique COVID Challenge

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Woman wearing mask

It was a typical Sunday morning at Market Basket, our favorite local grocery chain, and I was standing at the checkout line sporting my favorite mask.

As a person with a hearing impairment — and a hearing aid user — I’ve always found grocery shopping to be overwhelming, even before COVID. There are so many sounds and so many people that I have a hard time focusing on the things I actually need to hear. Thankfully, since I’ve been adept at lip-reading since childhood, it’s only uncomfortable and not necessarily a problem.

Then came COVID, which quickly destroyed my comfortable lip-reading routine.

Suddenly, I stepped into my worst nightmare — everyone’s mouths were covered.

Even worse, it became challenging to wear my hearing aids along with my mask and glasses. Instantaneously, even the shortest (but necessary) outing became exhausting.  

Now before I go any further, it’s important to note that I wholeheartedly believe wearing masks right now is essential. According to the medical community, the only way to reduce the number of infections is to cover up. I support the wearing of masks in public places, and I’m in no way suggesting rules or regulations should change until it’s safe to do so. 

But man, having a hearing impairment while everyone is wearing masks is its own special kind of hell. 

But back to Market Basket. Eventually, I got to the front of the line, unloaded my groceries, and attempted to answer the questions from the teenagers at the checkout. Unfortunately, it’s hard to answer someone when you can only vaguely hear a third of the question. It’s a very defeating feeling.

Sometimes people are patient and willing to repeat themselves, and sometimes they are not. I get it — these are tough times for everyone, and we’re all generally doing the best we can. 

But if you’re willing, there are some things we can do to support people with hearing loss while safely wearing masks. These things seem simple, but sometimes that’s what is most important. 

  1. If someone asks you to repeat what you said, be kind. Don’t scowl at us or roll your eyes. Just patiently repeat yourself. 
  2. Try to slow down when you talk. Even people without hearing loss would benefit from a conversation that isn’t “New England fast.”
  3. Reduce background noise.
  4. Instead of speaking louder, which can be physically painful to those of us with hearing loss, try to speak clearer and with greater enunciation. 
  5. Make eye contact, and don’t talk while walking or otherwise moving. 
  6. Rephrase. If we have to ask you to repeat something more than once, rephrase your words and give us another chance.
  7. Use hand gestures when possible. You don’t need to know sign language to communicate with your hands in a basic way.
  8. If you work in customer service, consider wearing a mask with a clear mouth window. It feels like a lot to ask, but it would make a difference to so many of us. 

Finally, and most importantly, try to remember to be kind — everyone is fighting a battle you know nothing about.

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