Bikes and Masks: Hearing in a Pandemic

As I write this from the patio of our sunny Palm Springs AirBnB, the news is gloomy – coronavirus panic is creating stock market chaos which screams of economic doom because the world is cancelling any get-together larger than two people or using any mode of transport beyond your two legs or a bicycle.

GAHH!

And hidden in all this is the much smaller issue of communication in a coronavirus-crazy world. I’m not trying to whine or say that people with hearing loss are being hit harder than any other group. Of course we’re not. But think of this: how are we supposed to understand people who are wearing mouth masks? Not only can we not read lips, the sound emitting from behind this cotton things is muffled. Sometimes we don’t hear anything but we assume the person is talking through their jerky head movements.

My instinct is to avoid talking to these masked people, because I will have to ask them to lower the mask, something they might be reluctant to do. But it’s either “stand back and lower the mask” or “sorry, this conversation is not going to happen”. At this point, March 10th, 2020, I see relatively few masked people walking about – most likely because I am vacationing far from the fear-inducing crowds of airports and large cities.

Even so, we worry – which is why I particularly enjoyed a fun and accessible bike ride yesterday with our friends. Six of us went on a bike tour of Palm Spring’s neighborhoods that highlights the area’s stunning “mid-century” architecture and the former homes of many celebrities, with gobs of gossip thrown in. The staff showed us how they greet each other – ankle shakes – and assured us that everything had been sanitized.

Two of us in our group have hearing loss. My friend Bill has mild-to-moderate loss and uses bilateral behind-the-ear devices – which I think are cutey-patootie compared to my larger hearing aid and cochlear implant. The bike tour company outfitted us with bikes, water and audio receivers so we could hear our guide named Mike, a volunteer with the Palm Springs Historical Society.

But Bill and I needed extra accommodation for the trip. The audio receivers were left-side “silhouette” style that fit snugly to the head but made it impossible for Bill to wear his hearing aid in that ear. Bill doesn’t like to remove his hearing aids, so during our frequent stops he stayed close to Mike to hear his commentary about the gorgeous houses, many in the distinctive Palm Springs modern mid-century design, and the famous people who lived, fought, married and unmarried in them.

I use a MiniMic2 Bluetooth transmitter that connects with both my hearing aid and my cochlear implant; Mike wore it on his shirt. The helmet felt uncomfortable with my cochlear implant, so I pocketed the sound processor and used only my hearing aid. Now I could hear Mike – and only to Mike. Using Bluetooth cut out any sound that didn’t come through his transmitter, which was usually just his voice.

On the first few streets of the tour, the transmission cut in and out, probably due to cross-body interference. Apparently, Bluetooth’s radio frequency is blocked by water and the human body is mostly water. Although I didn’t know this reason at the time, I started jockeying with Bill to be the bike directly behind Mike. Sometimes I fell back of the pack, gazing in awe at the place where Cary Grant actually walked and breathed. When other riders interfered with the Bluetooth connection between my guy Mike and me, I had to make do with tantalizing but incomprehensible snippets.

“….built in 1928 by….”

“…and here is the famous…”

“…a large convention of….”

“….so happy that he….”

“….rumor has it that…”

During our frequent stops, I could hear Mike clearly. But if the Hearing Husband or one of our friends tried to talk to me, especially as we were riding, they looked like actors in a silent movie, lips moving with no sound. “Can’t hear ya!” I called and kept pedalling. Nothing more frustrating that trying to converse with a silent talking head.

The bike ride is over and it’s back to making decisions that are often disappointing but necessary for the best possible chance of staying healthy during the coronavirus scare.

Stay safe, people, and do what you have to in order to communicate!

Top photo: Mike points to my transmitter while I, with helmet-head-hair, point to my sound processor. We clicked.

About Gael Hannan

Gael Hannan is a writer, speaker and advocate on hearing loss issues. In addition to her weekly blog for HearingHealthMatters.org, which has an international following, Gael wrote the acclaimed book "The Way I Hear It: A Life with Hearing Loss". She is regularly invited to present her uniquely humorous and insightful work to appreciative audiences around the world. Gael has received many awards for her work, which includes advocacy for a more inclusive society for people with hearing loss. She lives with her husband on Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada.

2 Comments

  1. I admire you and Bill for staying upbeat through this less than ideal experience. I wonder if a neckloop plugged into the audio receiver (in place of the left ear silhouette) and your CI/HA set to Telecoil (or even better T+M) would have worked for you. If the bike place is local and you have a neckloop maybe you could try it.

  2. Oh Gael, I can so relate to both trying to understand through the masks. Up to now the most frequent problem was at the dentist. Also to hearing snippets and trying to piece together the content. Thank you for your blogs. Stay well,
    Judy

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