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Updated July 2, 2020

During the COVID-19 pandemic, wearing facemasks has become common. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends wearing cloth face coverings in public places to prevent disease spread.

As of July 1, 2020, Pennsylvania began requiring residents to wear facemasks in public to prevent the risk of COVID-19 spread.

Masks are mandatory in all indoor public spaces, as well as in outdoor spaces where you cannot consistently maintain 6 feet of social distance between yourself and people who are not members of your household.

While health experts believe wearing facemasks can help prevent COVID-19 from spreading, they also can present challenges in communication.

This is especially true for people who are deaf or hard of hearing. According to a survey from the Hearing Health Foundation, 87 percent of respondents were experiencing communication problems from facemasks.

Facemasks prevent people with hearing issues from reading lips. Social distancing may make it harder to hear someone who’s 6 feet away. Ear-loop facemasks also can cause problems for people who wear hearing aids or cochlear implant processors.

The Pennsylvania mask requirement has an exemption for people who are deaf or hard of hearing or for people who are trying to communicate with people who are deaf or hard of hearing. However, there still may be situations where people with hearing loss may need to communicate with other people who are wearing facemasks.

There still are ways for deaf and hard-of-hearing people to communicate successfully, but it may require adapting.

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How People With Hearing Loss Can Communicate While Wearing Facemasks

With facemasks now commonly used in public places, people who are deaf or hard of hearing may have trouble communicating with others.

For deaf individuals who use sign language, masks are less of a problem. However, facial expression, an important part of communicating in sign language, is compromised.

There are many ways you can adapt if communicating in public is a problem:

  • Use technology: Thanks to technology, there are many ways you can work around the issue of communicating in public. For instance, it may be possible for you to shop online to avoid any communication problems. Use phone calls, video calls, or email to do business or communicate with health care providers if facemasks make in-person communication difficult. Download smartphone apps that can transcribe speech using talk-to-text.
  • Plan ahead: If you do need to go out in public and are worried about communication, prepare in advance. Make sure your hearing aid batteries are fresh, or have a backup just in case.
  • Write things down: Bring a pen/pencil and paper with you as a backup just in case you need it in public.
  • Consider your environment: Try to avoid locations that are noisy, in an attempt to minimize any potential hearing complications. If you wear hearing aids, adjust them up and down if you do find yourself in a loud place and are having trouble hearing.

How to Wear a Facemask With Hearing Aids

Communicating while wearing a facemask can be difficult for the people with hearing loss. But it also can be challenging to put a facemask on in the first place.

According to the Hearing Health Foundation’s survey, 42 percent of respondents had difficulty wearing both masks and either hearing aids or cochlear implant processors.

Ear-loop facemasks can tug on hearing aids, potentially dislodging them. And if you wear eyeglasses, it can complicate the process even more.

However, there are ways to work around the problem of facemasks and hearing aids:

  • Exercise caution: Be careful when putting on and taking off your facemask, trying to avoid tugging on your hearing aids. Check that they have not become dislodged.
  • Use cloth ties: Instead of using ear-loop facemasks, you can wear one that secures with ties. You can even create your own no-sew facemask that secures with ties by using a T-shirt, bandana, or other piece of cloth.
  • Secure your hearing aids: Use eyeglass straps, wig tape, or another device to secure your hearing aids to your ears, making it harder for them to be dislodged. Your audiologist can help you find the right retention solution.

How to Talk to With People With Hearing Loss While You Are Wearing a Mask

You may need to communicate with someone who has hearing loss. And if you’re wearing a facemask, that can make it difficult for both of you.

Your facemask prevents lip reading, and the mask may inhibit your own speaking ability. Social distancing may make it even harder for someone with hearing loss to hear what you’re saying from 6 feet away.

There are steps you can take to make communication easier.

  • Aim for quiet: Try to reduce background noise.
  • Speak slowly and clearly: Masks may make it more difficult to talk. Try to enunciate as much as possible to make your speech easier to hear and understand.
  • Don’t shout: While you should speak slowly and clearly, you shouldn’t raise your voice. It may actually make it harder for you to be understood.
  • Repeat yourself: If the person you’re talking to didn’t hear or understand you, don’t be afraid to repeat or rephrase what you said.
  • Take turns: Don’t speak over each other, as that will make communicating even more difficult.
  • Use different methods: Try writing things down and/or using a talk-to-text application on your smartphone.

While wearing facemasks can make communication more difficult for people with hearing loss, it’s not impossible to do. Patience is key; don’t get frustrated.

For more information, contact UPMC’s Center for Audiology at 412-647-2030.

Center for Hearing and Communication, 10 Tips for Managing Face Masks and Hearing Loss. Link

Healthy Hearing, A Tricky Combination: Face Masks, Hearing Loss and Hearing Aids. Link

Hearing Health Foundation, Managing Hearing Loss in the Time of COVID-19. Link

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