Commentary: Let’s not add communication problems to COVID-19 issues

By Linda Heller

Complex communication is what makes us humans and not animals. It also connects us to each other.

Linda Heller

We use verbal communication, meaning using mostly words and sentences to communicate thoughts and ideas to others. We also use nonverbal communication, which scientists say gives us about 55% of the meaning, on average, of what people say.

Nonverbal communications consist of gestures, facial expressions, tone of voice, eye contact, body language, speaking style, speed, tone and even our posture. Facial expressions alone can signal more than 20 different emotions. Good verbal and nonverbal skills, working together, are all the more important in this age of online meetings and one-to-one communication.

But wearing a mask can complicate communication and make us feel more isolated as well.

The wearing of face masks is recommended to prevent the spread of COVID-19. However, it can present major problems for many children and adults because it covers everything except our eyes. Face masks can impede the communication of speakers with accents, soft voices. very loud voices or those who talk fast. Even the distance you are from the speaker has a big impact on comprehending speech.

Face masks also present problems for some people with disabilities such as strokes, brain injuries, neurological and autism spectrum disorders, learning disabilities, hearing loss and vision loss, and can also be difficult for those with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

Let’s just take one example: deaf and hard-of-hearing people. The wearing of non-transparent masks can result language comprehension difficulties, and increased fear, doubt and anxiety for them.

I recently went to a Delaware restaurant with friends, and the waitress was talking very fast with a mask on, telling us what the daily specials were. I have a severe-to-profound hearing loss and wear hearing aids. I could not understand the waitress after she repeated it three times. I could hear one or two words, but it was random and made no sense.

When the person speaking is wearing a face mask, I’ve lost the ability to lip-read, and I’ve lost the ability to see facial expressions. I have lost the key things that make a sentence. When I asked if she could please social distance six feet away, move her mask and repeat more slowly the specials so I could lip-read and hear, she refused. She said she was not allowed to remove her mask. So my friends wrote out the specials for me.

Even people with normal hearing have repeatedly told me they have problems understanding what people say when they wear a mask and find it stressful, too!

So, what is the solution? First of all, understand the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines. Yes, wear a mask in public spaces and places you are not able to social distance (6-9 feet) or when you are with people with vulnerable conditions. Second, you can speak more slowly and clearly, not more loudly. Use good communication skills, especially when wearing masks. Third, you can wear a clear face mask, as they are considered safe. Since everyone — disabled and nondisabled, young and old — depends on seeing a person’s face and using lip-reading (speechreading) to understand people, transparent masks are the best answer to better verbal and nonverbal communication.

Transparent face mask allows for lip-reading. (Submitted photo)

Hearing loss is the third most prevalent health condition in the United States affecting over 48 million Americans, and one in three people between ages 65 and 74 have the condition. Even 12.5% of children between ages 6 and 19 now have hearing loss from listening with earbuds too long or from loud music (www.nidcd.nih.gov).

Clear masks need to be used by everyone — health care workers, hospital and nursing staff, teachers and front line workers in restaurants and businesses. Transparent masks are safe, can be handmade or purchased, and are not expensive. Everyone can benefit, so this should become the norm with standard use across Delaware and America.

Let’s work together to make it so we all can communicate well and more easily in this pandemicwith clear face masks!

Linda Heller, M.A.C.C.C.A., C.M., CAP-S, is president of the Hearing Loss Association of Delaware and an advocate for people with disabilities. Ms. Heller, who was born with a severe hearing loss and has worn hearing aids since she was 17, is a rehabilitation audiologist who owns a health, aging and disability consulting business. For information on hearing loss and clear masks, go to hlade.org.