What Covid-19 Has Taught Me about Hearing Loss
As a hearing loss advocate — and a person who has lived with hearing loss for more than half my life — I pride myself on knowing a lot about the challenges it brings. Over the years, I have become skilled at self-identifying, using assistive listening technologies, adjusting the environment for better hearing, and asking others to use communication best practices. But as the pandemic has shown me, there is always more to learn.
I rely on lipreading more than I thought
I have always used speechreading cues to help me fill in the blanks of my residual hearing, but I didn't know to what extent until they were gone. Trips to the grocery store, the doctor, or an outdoor restaurant have become increasingly challenging with everyone's face hidden. Asking people to face me when talking to me, one of my go-to strategies, is no longer effective. I never expected to long for the days when only facial hair was the barrier between me and the information carried by someone’s lip movements and facial expressions.
With only my residual hearing available (boosted by my hearing aids, of course), I feel awkward and ill at ease when running errands or trying to socialize. Keeping six feet apart only adds to the discomfort, as this distance is often the outer limit of usefulness for many hearing devices.
Everyone’s hearing loss is different
Masks do more than block speechreading cues; they also muffle sound, especially higher-pitched sounds critical for speech understanding. A recent study showed that sound dampening effects vary significantly by type of mask. Surgical masks had the least impact, blocking only 5 dB of sound, while clear masks, popular with people with hearing loss because they allow speechreading, block 12–14 dB, depending on the brand.
For people who rely on residual hearing to communicate more than speechreading, clear masks may actually make it harder to communicate. But if you are primarily a speech reader, they are of enormous benefit. The vast differences in how people experience hearing loss make it hard to find one solution that works for us all.
My hearing loss confidence has taken a hit
Hearing loss exhaustion is a common side effect of hearing loss. I describe it as the feeling at the end of the day that you cannot bear to interpret even one more sound. When you have hearing loss, understanding speech takes effort to combine the sounds that we hear, context clues, visual clues, and body language to determine what is being said. It's not easy, mainly because the conversation does not pause while doing all this mental processing. And then, you may need to reply!
The pandemic has only made this phenomenon worse, given the added strain of communicating with masks. The fear of not understanding adds to the exhaustion of each communication encounter — whether online or in person. My hearing loss confidence falters at times, but I am rebuilding it by embracing new technologies, including speech-to-text apps like Google's Live Transcribe (Android only) or Otter.ai.
Hearing loss is invisible
Most people take their hearing for granted, so they assume everyone else can hear too. Grocery check-out workers speak at a normal volume despite being masked and behind plexiglass, as do doctors and nurses, and almost everyone else. This is only natural given their life experience. And because hearing aids are small and hard to see, people may not realize we do not hear well unless we tell them.
Wearing a button or a pin declaring your hearing loss is an easy way to make your hearing loss more visible. Some people have even embroidered “Please speak louder” or “I am deaf” onto their masks. How we choose to let people know about our hearing loss is our choice, but we must do it. Self-identification is the first critical step toward better communication.
Self-advocacy is the key to success
Self-advocacy has always been the key to success with hearing loss, and it continues to be. Once we identify ourselves as a person with hearing loss, we must let others know the specific things they can do to help us understand. The more detailed we are, the higher the chances are for successful communication. Making our requests with a smile, even one hidden behind a mask, is more likely to get results. Everyone is struggling in these challenging times. When we ask for what we need with kindness, there is a much higher likelihood the person will do as we ask.
Shari Eberts is a hearing health advocate, writer, speaker, and avid Bikram yogi. She is the founder of LivingWithHearingLoss.com, a blog and online community for people living with hearing loss and tinnitus. She has an adult-onset genetic hearing loss and hopes that by sharing her story, she will help others to live more peacefully with their own hearing issues.
Shari serves on the Board of Hearing Loss Association of America (www.hearingloss.org) and is the former Board Chair of Hearing Health Foundation (www.hhf.org). She serves as Lead Patient Advocate and Co-Lead of the Stakeholder Advisory Team for the PCORI study "Addressing the Clinical Dilemma and Patient Preference for Unilateral versus Bilateral Hearing Aids.