Better hearing during the pandemic
Imagine this scenario: You are in the grocery store paying for your groceries. The grocery store employee behind the counter is wearing a face mask and working behind a plastic shield. The person asks you a question.
You have absolutely no idea what they said.
The lip reading cues you once used to help you understand a message? Gone.
The facial expressions that once helped you when you were in a bind? Disappeared.
- Nod and attempt a smile under your own mask?
- Shrug in embarrassment?
- Ask them to repeat?
- Answer a completely different question than the one you were asked?
If you’ve been living on this planet for the last two years, you have probably lived through some version of this experience at one point or another. Face masks have become an essential part of keeping ourselves and others safe and healthy during the Covid-19 pandemic. For people also living with hearing loss, the introduction of face masks, shields, and protective glass have formed another barrier to communication, making it more difficult than ever to understand a conversation
Strategies we can all use to communicate better in the “mask era”
While we wait for the world to get back to normal, let’s learn about some communication strategies that we can all implement to make masked communication easier during the pandemic.
Ask your audiologist to design a Mask Mode program for you.
Researchers have done studies that have helped us understand how a mask impedes speech understanding and ways that audiologists can alleviate that situation. We know that certain face masks can reduce high frequency sounds by as much as 5-15 dB. Fortunately, advances in bone anchored hearing aid technology have made this problem easier than ever to solve. An audiologist can go into the software and create a specialized “Mask Mode” program for their patients that emphasizes the high frequency sounds that masking tends to reduce, adding emphasis to certain speech cues that are important for clarity and understanding. A Ponto™ patient can even name the program in the Connectline™ app or the Oticon ON™ app “Mask Program” and go to that program setting with a quick press of the button when in need of a clarity boost.
Talk to your audiologist about designing a Mask Mode program for you to improve your communication performance during the pandemic.
Check your mask.
Studies show that certain types of face masks make hearing more difficult. Research out of the University of Illinois shows that single-use surgical masks and KN95 respirator masks both dampened sound the least (approximately 5 dB) compared to cloth masks. The disposable mask or KN95 mask will allow more high frequency information through, thus improving speech clarity. You may consider selecting a disposable face mask if you will be communicating with someone who has a hearing loss.
Consider a clear mask.
A clear mask is a type of mask with a clear window in front of your mouth. These masks make hearing and understanding speech easier because they provide access to visual cues and allow access to lip reading. Several companies are currently making high quality clear masks that are available for purchase. Try a quick Google search and you will find many options for places to purchase this type of protective face mask.
Advocate for yourself.
If you are someone with a hearing loss, don’t be afraid to speak up. If you are speaking to someone wearing a face mask and you don’t catch the full message, try saying something like, “I’m sorry, can you rephrase that? I have a hearing loss and I’m having difficulty understanding what you’re saying.” The person you are conversing with will understand your situation and gain empathy. They will have a chance to shift their communication style to one that suits you better, whether by speaking more slowly and clearly, raising their vocal effort slightly, or reducing noise in the room to improve your chances of understanding them successfully.
Additional communications strategies to try.
If you are having difficulty understanding someone, your first instinct might be to say, “What?” or “Huh?”. Repeated use of these words can make dialogue frustrating. Instead, try to ask your communication partner to rephrase their message. Here are a few examples:
- “Can you add more detail for me?”
- “I heard you say _______ but didn’t quite catch the rest. Can you tell me more about that?”
- “Can you say that sentence in a different way?”
- “I heard you say ________. Can you elaborate on that point a bit more?”
Using these ideas for gathering more information will help the conversation flow and give you more opportunities to understand the message.
Online resources for bone anchored hearing support
Connecting with other Ponto users online can help provide you with support as you face the many challenges that the pandemic brings to daily life.
Oticon Medical Ponto Users | Facebook
Our Ponto Users Facebook group is an excellent tool for communication and collaboration with other Ponto users. During this time of pandemic isolation, remember that Oticon Medical has an expansive network of bone anchored hearing system users who are ready to share resources and discussion.
Oticon Medical BAHS Users Support Group | Facebook
Our BAHS support group is another useful way to connect to other bone anchored device users to discuss tips, stories, and ways to get the most out of your device.
Patient helpline (oticonmedical.com)
If you have a clinical question but you aren’t able to make it in to see your audiologist, Oticon Medical’s patient support team is available to answer any question you might have. Use the link above to access a wealth of knowledge from our support team, or call (888) 277-8014 during the hours of 8 AM and 8 PM Eastern Time, Monday through Friday.
About the Author
Courtney Smith is the Clinical Trainer at Oticon Medical. She practiced audiology in both medical and private practice settings in Las Vegas, NV. She has experience working with hearing aids, cochlear implants, and bone anchored solutions for adults and pediatrics. She completed her training at the University of Iowa in 2003.