COVID-19 presents new challenges for people with hearing loss


It’s an average day in the age of COVID-19. You wake up and get ready for work, don your face mask, and head to your job as a supermarket cashier. You’re hard of hearing, and reading lips helps you pick up what your hearing device misses. But right now, the face masks customers wear make it difficult to discern their muffled words or know whether they’re speaking at all.

Maybe you’re a deaf person who enjoys theater and comedy shows. But few of the virtual performances provide an ASL interpreter, and even fewer offer live-captioning or use a closed-captioning add-on service.

Physical distancing, masking, and other methods to slow the spread of the virus have created inconveniences for most people, but they have exposed and compounded existing accessibility issues for people with hearing problems.

In few places is the impact as pronounced as Rochester, which as home to the National Technical Institute for the Deaf, has one of the highest per-capita populations of deaf and hard of hearing people in the country.

But there are local organizations and individuals working on ways to overcome the obstacles.

Kelly Cheatle, a designer for local balloon sculpture company Airigami, has put her creative skills toward simplifying and improving face masks with clear windows, so that the wearer’s mouth is visible to those who rely on lip-reading, and devising masks that don’t interfere with over-the-ear hearing aids.

They are machine washable and can be dried on a low setting. Cheatle even had a solution for the problem of breath fogging up the plastic. “I found that just a tiny little dab of dish soap, rubbed over the face of the mask on the inside, keeps it from fogging up,” she said.

Her masks are now being used by audiologists at Rochester Hearing and Speech Center, after the director of development, Amy Stein, issued a plea on Facebook for the equipment. While windowed masks are made by larger-scale manufacturers, Stein explained, there is a waiting list for them.

Cheatle was alerted to Stein’s post and sent over her designs for the audiologists to try. Stein said the audiologists loved them, and recalled how the masks were welcomed by a friend who reads lips.

“She said, ‘I wish everybody would have a clear mask, because as a person that needs to read lips, I'm afraid to go anywhere,’” Stein said. “If we're going to be a masked society, the more people that can have breathable, clear masks, I think the better it is for everybody.”

Dr. Gregory Horton, the audiology administrator at RHSC, agreed.

“All of us, regardless of our hearing acuity, rely on visual cues during communication,” he said. “Think about when you're out at a restaurant or a bar. And if it's really noisy, you find yourself really paying attention to the person's face that you're talking to.”

Individuals with hearing loss rely much more heavily on those visual cues to supplement the auditory information that they're receiving, Horton said.

The staff at RHSC diagnoses and treats hearing disorders in people of all ages, from babies to senior citizens. Since the pandemic, workers have been interacting with patients at curbside appointments in deference to federal and state guidelines.

“The individuals with hearing loss, they're sitting in their cars out in the parking lot, you've got traffic noise going by, and when you're wearing a mask and they can't see your face, it becomes very challenging for them to understand what you're trying to say to them,” Horton said. “So having a mask with a window allows them access to those visual cues, being able to see the movement of the mouth can supplement with the residual hearing or the amplified hearing that they have.”

Accessibility issues during the pandemic have been a big point of discussion for the Hearing Loss Association of America. Suzanne Johnston, president of the Rochester chapter, said the organization has been lobbying the federal government to ensure that all essential, relevant communications are closed-captioned.

“And we as an organization in Rochester have lobbied individually for local entities to provide captioning for any kind of public announcements, but it's especially important right now,” she said.

Johnston also owns a private practice as a speech language pathologist, and is hard of hearing herself. She said one challenge is overcoming the misconception that being deaf and hard of hearing is one and the same.

“In fact, they're not one and the same,” Johnston said. “There are people who are deaf who use ASL as a primary means of communication. And then there are people who are deaf, but they use verbal language as their primary form of communication. And it's the latter group who really need to have captioning or other means of accessibility for communication.”

Too often, Johnston said, when an organization receives a request for greater access from a person who is functionally deaf but uses verbal speech, or someone who is hard-of-hearing, they respond by providing a sign language interpreter. Johnston said society, in general, doesn’t grasp that people with hearing difficulties require different forms of communication.

The pandemic has heightened awareness of the importance of accessible, clear, and effective communication, Johnston said.

"This is especially critical during a time of angst and urgency regarding health and the economy,” Johnston said. “While in the past we might not have been so sensitive to this, now is an opportunity to begin to understand how we can and should best reach out to others to maintain our physical, psychological, and societal health."

People can do that, Johnston said, by recognizing diverse needs, educating themselves in how to address those needs appropriately, and by creating official bodies to meet the needs of people with communication access challenges.

Isolation is another critical hidden accessibility issue. It has been well documented that people with hearing loss tend to isolate and withdraw from social interactions if their condition goes untreated. Research shows that isolation can contribute to cognitive decline.

Horton, of RHSC, said it is crucial for people who are unable to hear well to have some other mode of communication through virtual interactions.

“Now we've got orders for social distancing and social isolation,” Horton said. “And people's only form of communication at this point is through phone calls or video conferences, if they have the technology to do it.”

Cheatle offers a tutorial video (PDF of pattern and detailed instructions here) for anyone who would like to help make clear window masks. She said volunteers from Western New York Fighting COVID, a social services nonprofit group to which she belongs, will collect the masks, sanitize them, and distribute them to people who have requested them.

“The people of Rochester are a very generous people,” she said. “If you give them a call to action, they'll take that call and run with it. So it's frustrating at times, to not have that call to action from the federal level. I'm thinking of victory gardens and all the things people did to rally and get through other challenging times in history. And I know that emotionally we might be done with this pandemic, but the pandemic is not done with us. So we're gonna have to find ways to get through this together.”

Rebecca Rafferty is CITY's arts & entertainment editor. She can be reached at [email protected].