Surviving 20 Months of Masked Communication

(Alert! If you don’t think people should be wearing masks – at all – perhaps this article isn’t for you.)

It’s been a year and two-thirds since the pandemic became real. 20 months of obsessive hand washing and sanitizing. Of nervous distancing, sheltering at home, making too much food and watching too much Netflix. And then, finally coming out of hiding to start talking again – with a new population of masked people.

Somewhere in there, I caught an unexpected flying covid-kiss from my three-year-old granddaughter. Boom! Instant family covid, followed by lingering long-covid symptoms. I’m sure that one day, my sense of smell will improve and I will be able enjoy cilantro and Dijon mustard again.  

But here’s what I really would like to enjoy again: not having to talk through masks. For the entire 20 months, that has been the biggie problemo. Frankly, for people with hearing loss (PWHL), covid-communication has been a b***h. I don’t care how pretty your mask is; when all I see are the bumpy movements of a person’s lips beneath pieces of cloth and I all I hear are muffled, monotone words, I am not going to understand very well, if at all. And unless I simply want to walk away or play guessing games about what’s being said, which I don’t, I have to resort to pandemic communication survival skills.

It starts by advocating for myself. No one is going to look at me and say, “Hey! I betcha that person can’t hear very well.”

Let’s assume I’m talking with a cashier who is the requisite 6 feet away and/or is separated from me by a solid plexiglass shield. The cashier says something from behind a highly decorated, colorful mask. I don’t understand her. I sigh and roll my inner eyes. Here we go again.

Action: I explain that I have hearing loss and I read lips. I mime how she could show me hers.

Desired Outcome: She will get what I’m saying, hook her mask with her pointy finger, pull it down below her lips, and repeat herself. This is happening with increasing frequency these days, but it’s far from the norm. However, when it does happen, my response is always a thank you or a big smile or both.

However, the Usual Outcome: The cashier’s eyes grow larger and she looks around wondering what to do. Or perhaps she’s looking for help from the gods; she doesn’t want to lose her job and she was instructed to Wear Your Mask at All Times. Then she says in a louder voice, “I can speak louder.”

Another sigh. I can respond in one of several ways.

• I can lob the ball back to her with: “Still deaf. Still reading lips.” But nicely, you know? Then, hopefully, she will give me the Desired Outcome.

• I can get my back up. Maybe I’m tired or maybe I’ve had a bad hearing day or maybe her stupid mask irritates me. Whatever the reason, I just look at her until she comes up with a solution on her own. Which could be holding up a bag, if she’s been asking if I need bags. She could hold up the chicken, asking if I want it separately wrapped. If I wasn’t so grumpy today, I could have told the cashier as I started to put my food on the conveyer, and before she has a chance to speak, “Hi, I’m deaf, I have my own bags, don’t wrap the chicken, here’s my points card, and I’ll be paying by credit card.”

• OR, I could whip out my smartphone, quickly find my speech-to-text app (I use Otter), and ask her to repeat herself, explaining what I’m doing. And I will try not to feel the impatience of the people in line behind me because, hey, I’m a customer too and I deserve to be able to understand what’s going on. Plus, they would do well to notice my win-win solution because it could help them, too.

I now often use the grocery store self-checkout option, so that I don’t have to talk to anyone. I’ve also just started packing a few disposable clear masks to hand out with problem communicators. But I haven’t had to offer one yet, because, truly, people are getting better, not only about communicating safely, but in understanding the frustrating challenges of masked communication.

And, over these 20 months, maybe I’m getting nicer. 

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.

3 Comments

  1. I think most people are also fedup with the difficultly we experience communicating but now on a personal level due to masks.
    I myself am grumpy as I have a medical doctor who refuses to acknowledge my hearing loss and speaks to me without addressing/acknowledging ANYTHING I say to him. This is beyond acceptable in a Level 1 trauma centre in a specialty clinic!! This man angers be beyond words as obviously he has never heard of patient centred care and refuses to listen and act my 7 years of educating him on my hearing loss.

  2. I am 78 and have a severe loss of hearing but rely on hearing aids and am not able to read lips (although I’m sure I do unconsciously to a small extent). My hearing loss started at an early age and I was able to get by with just hearing aids until the past couple years. But now there are several additional obstacles for speech to get through to my already muffled hearing and I really feel disabled. I am putting off much needed medical and dental appointments because of my hearing difficulty. Using crutches like Otter, personal listeners and Mini Mic help but it’s hard to use these things when dealing with a receptionist or clerk or a hurried physician. I envy those with lip reading skills even with the current obstacles.

  3. Just yesterday, I was at a restaurant’s outdoor table. I told the waiter I was hard of hearing and needed to read lips and I asked him to back away so he could take off his mask.

    He said, I think, “That’s okay.”

    He didn’t move and didn’t take off his mask……..

    I stared at him, perplexed and annoyed. Was he saying it was okay for me to exist as a hard of hearing person??!

    He finally took off his mask.

    I still need to work on not getting annoyed, I’m afraid. It’s amazing how little thought is given by so many people to hearing loss that affects so many other people, but that’s the way it’s been for millennia and most weren’t taught anything about hearing loss. I need to remind myself the pandemic has affected many, many people in ways that aren’t obvious to the naked eye. Despite their incomprehensible words, they need the benefit of the doubt and our compassion, too.

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