UK audiologist comments on COVID-19 and hearing loss

Sufferers of hearing loss may have hearing aids, but sometimes the devices help to correct hearing only partially. In some cases where hearing loss is complete, even hearing aids don’t help. Therefore, the hearing-impaired rely on reading lips and facial expressions or sign language to “hear” what is being said. Television normally has a sign language interpreter to communicate what is being said on the news using signs, facial expressions and body posture. Also, most programs provide live captioning or use a closed-captioning add-on service. The coming of covid19 now requires people to wear facial masks a maintain social distancing. We spoke to a UK audiologist, “” about the challenges that covid19 has brought to people with hearing loss. 

Is hearing loss common?

Hearing loss affects people at all ages and even babies can be born with the problem. However, as people grow older, they may lose their hearing due to various causes. Statistics say about a third of people aged 65 year and older, and 70-90% of people over 85 years, have a certain level of hearing loss. 

How has covid19 affected people with hearing loss generally?

Masks make it difficult for the hearing-impaired individuals to read lips and facial expressions. Social distancing makes it difficult for them to hear properly what other people are saying inside the masks. That makes communication difficult for them.

How has covid19 affected workers with hearing loss?

If a worker, such as a supermarket cashier or bank teller, has a hearing problem, he/she relies on reading lips to pick up what their hearing devices miss. Now, with customers wearing masks, it is difficult for the workers to discern the muffled words or to even detect that the customer is saying something. 

How has covid19 affected entertainment for people with hearing loss?

Hearing loss sufferers have no problems when watching the news and other programs on television. However, they find it difficult to enjoy virtual performances because only a few provide a sign language interpreter, and fewer offer live-captioning or use a closed-captioning add-on service. Therefore, hearing loss sufferers have fewer entertainment options.

What can be done to help people with hearing loss under the circumstances?

We hear that someone in the U.S. has designed a mask that has a clear window which enables others to read lips. The masks are machine washable and can be dried on a low setting. The designer found that a tiny dab of dishwashing liquid inside the masks keeps them from fogging. The masks are already being manufactured and made available and are being used by some audiologists in the U.S. The designer is now designing masks that don’t interfere with over-the-ear hearing aids. We appeal to people in the UK and elsewhere to start making masks with clear windows.

What else can be done to assist those with hearing loss?

Since social distancing and social isolation have become the normal way of life till covid19 is eradicated. Most communication at present is through phone calls and video conferences, if the technology is available. We therefore appeal to governments to make sure that all necessary and relevant communications, at local and national level, are closed-captioned.

What has covid19 taught people about hearing loss?

Society has is learning that deaf people use sign language as a primary means of communication. Also, that people who are hard of hearing use verbal language as their primary form of communication and need captioning or other ways of accessibility for communication. The distinction was not very important at one time, but the pandemic has increased awareness of the importance of different forms of communication for people with different levels of hearing loss. 

How can people with hearing loss get medical help?

There are people who have mild hearing loss problems who managed to live almost normal lives before covid19 by reading lips and facial expressions to supplement their hearing. Now that communication is becoming more difficult due to the need for masks and social distancing, older people with hearing loss may find the environment challenging and isolate themselves completely. Isolation and hearing loss may pose the danger of accelerating dementia. Such people should get help from audiologists who will test the level of hearing (testing and assessment may be free) and provide treatment. Treatment may be as simple as a hearing aid or the draining of wax from ears or the removal of any growths and other things that may be obstructing the ear canals. If tinnitus is a problem, the audiologist will find out what causes it and correct the problem.