Me vs. The Mask: A Pandemic Hearing Problem

As we crawl our way through this global pandemic, I understand the need for masks. But that doesn’t mean I have to like them. 

People with hearing loss are not good at masked communication because it cuts off the vital information we get from lipreading. Before the pandemic, my suffering was limited to trying to understand a mask-wearing aesthetician giving me a pedicure. Now, masks are everywhere.

I decided it was time to do my bit to plank-the-curve and start wearing a mask, partly because it’s now a recommended practice and partly because of that other virus going around – a nervous distrust of people who may not be following the pandemic safety rules, therefore putting the rest of us at risk. Besides, how hard could it be to wear a mask?

Perfect timing – a kind neighbor had been making masks for the local community. We took a couple of her free, sterile, and packaged masks with us when we went shopping for supplies. The Hearing Husband decided to wait in car and catch up on the news while I shopped. But first I had to put on my new and very bright green mask.

I hooked the elastic holders over my ears and discovered the mask wasn’t quite wide enough. My pinnae (the flappy part of the ears) were pulled forward over my ear-holes, causing the behind-the-ear part of my hearing aid to pop out and dangle beside my head. I tried to stretch the mask a bit wider, but it popped up over my eyes, momentarily blinding me. The Hearing Husband kept checking messages on his phone, ignoring my frustration in the seat beside him, as well as my running narrative that was rapidly turning the air blue.

Patience is not my best quality. I yanked out my hearing aid and put it in the glove compartment, hooked on the mask as best as I could and marched into the store, with my ears were still folded in half. I was keenly aware of my odd appearance; the bright green mask coupled with my red Inuit-design parka had turned me into a walking Christmas card, and breath-induced steam was escaping upwards and clouding my glasses.

Without the hearing aid, my cochlear implant (CI) was on its own. My brain is used to getting its information from the partnership of my left-side hearing aid and right-side cochlear implant. Forced to fly solo, the CI could pick up the high-pitched music over the store’s PA system, but it struggled with the overall noise (which also ignited some serious tinnitus). Most shoppers appeared to be in pairs and all were engaged in discussing their shopping lists. I couldn’t help hearing two people interacting urgently, loudly, and with lots of arm waving.

            Her: Do we need pasta!

            Him: We have enough pasta!

            Her: We don’t have rotini!

            Him: But we have penne!

            Her: Right! Go get some coconut milk while I choose the cheese!

            Him: No! YOU get the milk and I’LL stay with the cheese.

            Her: OK, fine!

I’m thinking, is all this yakking absolutely necessary? You’re not wearing masks and your droplets are hosing down the cheese! Cover your gobs or stop talking or both. (It’s clear that a side effect of this pandemic is crankiness.)

The checkout clerk didn’t speak as loudly. I asked her to repeat herself, but not using speech. Because I need to read lips, I bizarrely assumed that people can’t understand me from behind my mask. Instead, in a universally understood gesture, I raised my eyebrows and cocked my ear towards her. This seemed to work. She repeated, but because of her amazing skill of talking without moving her lips, I understood nothing. I replied using my own special skill of bluffing (pretending to understand when one doesn’t have a clue) and shook my head no.

As I picked up my bags, I heard Ms. Softly-Voiced say something along the lines of have a nice day. For some explicable reason, instead of saying you too, I bowed to her. Bowed! Had my neighbor sprinkled some dementia powder in my mask before packaging it? Or did I bow simply because nothing is normal now? 

To be fair, my neighbor’s only crime was sewing the masks based on the average facial dimensions of her and her husband, which are clearly smaller than ours. The Hearing Husband is 6’6″ with a proportionately-sized head while I, although shorter, have a more, uh, significant nose that pushes the mask outward, making it harder for the elastics to hook my ears comfortably.

Back at the car, I was over my snit and by the next stop, I had the process nailed. I entered the butcher’s with my mask, hearing aid, CI sound processor and glasses all in place. I stood well back from the counter. I used my voice. I did not bow.

Dislike of masks aside, I was doing my bit to stay healthy, lick this pandemic and keep the economy moving. 

 

 

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.

13 Comments

  1. Hi Gael, masks are a necessary inconvenience but learning tolerance is far better than listening to outrageous comments at humor. Follow the KISS concept: Just use it!

    1. Thank you for the lecture, sir. I will continue to write with humor and insight into the life with hearing loss and you can continue to dispense hearing aids. We’re probably both good at what we do. Have a great day and thanks for writing.

  2. Hi Gael,
    Good post, thank you.
    I need to ask you something.
    Masks are going to be an issue for a bit. So, I am wanting to get pharmacies
    to put a tablet behind their plexiglass set ups – our Shoppers Drug Marts in Toronto all have them now.

    So, I am going to post in the comments section of facebook – where I found your column – about this.
    Hope you can take a minute to read, and let me know your thoughts.
    Be well.
    Laura

  3. Now in my seventies, I have worn hearing aids since I was seven years old. I have two BTE’s, behind the ear hearing aids. I made my own mask using several layers, six, of folded white cotton fabric, which are my husband’s sturdy handkerchiefs and a rubber band tying them up on each end. Even with my BTE’s I was able to slip the rubber band over my ears holding my mask well in place. I got the instructions on making it from a TV personality and it appears to be working well. When I come in from the pharmacy and from grocery shopping I take the mask off put II in my washing machine with some bleach and wash and dry it having it ready for my next

  4. I’ve made and given away about 10 masks so far, and you are quite right. It is impossible to size them to “fit anyone”! Especially when you lack elastic supplies and cannot get out to buy it! So I guess, and give away. Most people so far have managed to make them work, either with a needle and thread or with a stapler helping out. “Real estate” on the ear is definitely challenged at this time, especially if you add eyeglasses to the mix! I’m glad you solved your fit problem. I’ve heard of at least one case of a person losing her HA whilst on a neighborhood walk, due to ear-loop competition! That ‘s a serious problem to watch out for! Take care and stay healthy!

  5. Try downloading captioning apps. Ava seems better than Otter. Also I have type of masks that have elastic band that goes on back of head. I cannot use masks with elastic behind ears because of two CIs and glasses. Hugs. Keep us posted.

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