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While wearing a face mask can be uncomfortable for some people, the mandate is particularly difficult for the deaf and hearing impaired. 

Research performed on a variety of mask types showed that while surgical masks only reduce noise by about five decibels, cloth masks reduce sound by approximately 21 decibels. Additionally, masks muffle high-frequency pitches, which are typically the most difficult for the hearing-impaired community to register. 

This makes communication increasingly difficult for the hearing-impaired community, and miscommunication in medical centers was a leading cause of hospital readmission before the pandemic. 

As wearing masks is essential to the protection of both patients and medical staff during the pandemic, institutions are working to find a solution that will safely improve communication with hearing-impaired patients. Here are four things you can do to communicate with the hearing impaired across the barrier of a mask:

1. Use a Face Mask with a Window

One of the biggest problems with most masks is that they conceal the mouth, which makes it impossible for the hearing impaired to read lips. A solution to this is to wear a face mask with a transparent window.

Face masks with windows also make it easier for the hearing impaired to see your facial expressions, which further guides the conversation.

One drawback with these is that some types of window face masks fog up quickly during conversations. To reduce fog, purchase anti-fog vinyl windowed face masks, or you can clean them with lens wipes for eyeglasses.

2. Reduce Background Noises

Another way to make conversing easier for the hearing-impaired community is to reduce background noise. If you can’t turn down the noise, suggest moving to a quieter room to talk.

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As some people are embarrassed by hearing impairment, making the suggestion yourself removes the burden from them.

3. Practice Conversation Etiquette for the Hearing Impaired

Practicing basic communication skills can also significantly improve conversation comprehension with the hearing impaired and can be done with a mask.

Before you begin speaking, be sure the hearing-impaired person is listening to you. You can tap them on the shoulder or call their name to get their attention. Once you have their attention, stand directly in front of them and speak slowly and clearly.

If they ask you to repeat, don’t repeat with the same words. Some words have higher frequency pitches than others, so rephrase what you said and use short sentences.

Your facial expressions can also help increase comprehension, and despite wearing a mask, your eyes and even your smile will be apparent. If you’re asking a question, a slight tilt of the head or a raised eyebrow can provide further communication hints to the listener.

If you’re having an extended conversation with a hearing-impaired person, check that they understand each phrase before continuing the discussion.

4. Bring Basic Written Communication Tools

If you know that you’re about to meet with a hearing-impaired individual, come prepared with a whiteboard or notebook. Bringing simple, low-tech communication options will make them feel more at ease, and it also makes it easy to write down instructions or important information.

You can also use speech-to-text transcription apps on your phone. Many of these apps also allow you to save the conversation for reference at a later date.

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Masks are likely here for the long run, so take some time to learn how to communicate effectively with the hearing impaired. Don’t be afraid to ask them about their preferred communication methods and adjust to their needs accordingly.

Pauline Dinnauer
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