When you wear a mask, I can’t read your lips

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PHILADELPHIA — I went to the beer store last weekend and spent $81 (don’t judge — looks like this will be a long haul), but there was some confusion over the matter of my credit card.

I think the store clerk said not to sign the slip. Or maybe he said my card had a chip? I was born with a significant hearing loss, and he was wearing a mask. No way for me to read his lips.

Communication, like so many other things we take for granted, is an indirect casualty of the coronavirus, and not just for people like me who have had formal training in reading lips. Many people rely to some degree on lipreading without realizing it, including millions with an undiagnosed hearing loss as well as people with normal hearing.

And masks not only obscure the lips, they also muffle the sound.

This was no great hardship when I interacted with the clerk at Frosty Caps in Abington, Pa. I held up my pen, which I had brought so I would not have to touch one used by other customers, but he waved me off. Communication with gestures worked well enough.

But imagine if the stakes were higher — say, if a person with hearing loss were in the hospital.

Health-care providers who specialize in hearing loss have advice:

Bring lists of medications, medical conditions, and contact information for relatives and your primary-care doctor.

If you wear a hearing aid, don’t forget extra batteries. Ditto the cell-phone charger, as many hearing aids are controlled with a smartphone app, via Bluetooth.

Ask for help. A hospital should have an accessibility coordinator who can arrange for captioning devices and other gadgetry — or in a pinch, an erasable whiteboard, says Chad Ruffin, an ear, nose, and throat specialist in Seattle

For those who use sign language, interpreters should be available, though masks interfere with that form of communication, too. Facial expressions are a big part of it

Another option is to ask health-care workers to wear a clear mask.

While such masks have been available commercially for a while, do-it-yourselfers have now joined the action amid the coronavirus pandemic, sharing examples of their handiwork

If such masks are not available, the person who is talking can help in other ways.

Contrary to popular belief, speaking more loudly may not help. Most people with hearing loss can hear vowel sounds well enough. It’s the consonants that pose a problem, especially the higher-pitched ones such as S and SH. Shouting does not make them any clearer and may distort the other sounds in a way that makes things worse.

If someone is not understanding you, try calmly repeating the sentence in a normal voice, or say it in a different way with more context.

It is probably best to avoid the temptation to lift your mask when speaking, as that defeats the goal of preventing asymptomatic transmission of the virus. What’s more, you might inadvertently touch your face — another potential route of transmission, if you recently touched a germy doorknob in public.

(Side note: When back in the house, hearing-aid wearers should remove their masks carefully. I once took off my mask too quickly, and my hearing aid got tangled in the elastic strap.)

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends masks when social distancing is difficult

So for now, some degree of impaired communication may be the new normal.

I may be returning to Frosty Caps sooner than I expected.


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