Covid-19 Creating New Challenges for People with Hearing Loss
While the pandemic has changed normal patterns for learning, working and socializing for almost everyone, one of the most impacted groups has been people with hearing loss. As conversation moves online via video conference calls and behind protective masks, people with hearing loss have faced increased isolation and communication difficulties. Coming together as a community, we are rising to these new challenges while also educating the hearing population about our needs.
Virtual Meetings Provide Needed Social Interaction
When stay-at-home orders hit, none of us were prepared. Everyday activities like grocery shopping, celebrating birthdays or religious holidays got more complicated and more solitary. People with hearing loss face communication challenges in normal times, but the pandemic added new wrinkles.
To combat the isolation, we came together as a community at virtual chapter meetings open to the entire hearing loss community. They started small, driven by a handful of volunteers, but were soon backed by Hearing Loss Association of America, the largest consumer advocacy group for people with hearing loss.
Guest speakers shared tips for making the most of your quarantine, including how to stay connected with friends and family despite the mandate for physical separation. There were sessions on managing hearing loss in healthcare settings and the latest hearing friendly technologies. We even performed a short group meditation to help combat Covid-19 stress.
The best part of each meeting is seeing the smiling faces of the participants as we swap stories, share communication tips and provide support for one another. Check HLAA’s website for details on the next one.
Clear Masks Ease Conversation for Some
Masks make it difficult to communicate for a variety of reasons — all of them bad for people with hearing loss. First, they physically block the sound – up to 20 dB depending on the type of mask. Second, they hide speech reading cues like lip movements and facial expressions. This takes away our secret weapon for understanding speech we cannot hear. The six-feet social distancing rules make this even tougher. As do face shields and those plexiglass barriers that keep popping up at the supermarket and other places.
Clear masks make a big difference for some people with hearing loss because they unlock the speech reading cues blocked by other types of masks. But there is a trade-off since clear masks have been shown to degrade sound more than cloth or surgical masks. Clear masks are also still hard to find, especially in medical settings. There is no easy solution, but because masks are needed for public safety, we can expect they will be around for some time.
Luckily, necessity is the mother of invention. Some clever audiologists have created mask programs for hearing aids that boost the high-frequency tones most often blocked by masks. Like a hearing aid program for restaurants, or for listening to music, mask programs can be activated by the wearer as needed. Technology workarounds like speech-to-text apps are also helpful. As are low-tech solutions like paper and pen.
The most important part of communicating with masks is learning to advocate for yourself. Because hearing loss is invisible, people will not know we are having trouble hearing them unless we let them know. We must ask for the assistance we need with clarity and with a smile. Everyone is struggling in these challenging times. A kind request is more likely to be met.
No-Cost Captioning Still Needed on Zoom
Due to social distancing, work and social interactions moved online during the pandemic, creating additional challenges for people with hearing loss due to a lack of captions. To raise awareness about this issue and to urge the largest industry players to consider providing free auto-captions on their platforms, I started a petition “Provide Free Captions for People with Hearing Loss on Video Conferencing Platforms” on change.org.
My online petition calls on video conferencing providers to make free ASR captions available immediately.
The petition launched in mid-April and shortly thereafter, Google made its Google Meet platform with excellent auto-captions available to everyone for free. Previously this feature was only available for paid business accounts. In late May, Microsoft did the same for Microsoft Teams. Zoom lags behind.
In June, Zoom launched high-quality auto-captions on its platform, but only for paid business and enterprise accounts, keeping this important feature out of reach for many people with hearing loss and leaving its platform woefully behind on accessibility. The petition hit 54,000 signatures this week. Please sign and share to keep the pressure on Zoom to make their platform appropriately accessible for people with hearing loss.
The hearing loss community will continue to advocate for its needs and to educate the broader population about ways to make communication more accessible. We hope the changes enacted will help people with hearing loss not only during these challenging pandemic times, but well into the future as well.