Un-Masking the Message when Wearing a Mask

John Hillier has been an audiologist for nine years and really enjoys the work he does at the Janeway Children’s Health and Rehabilitation Centre, with both children and adults. “Everyone wants to be heard and understood,” says John. “Most of us take for granted the basic human ability to communicate – to understand, and be understood – but for some people communicating is a real challenge.”

In many cases, these challenges have intensified this past year as mask wearing and physical distancing has become the new norm. Added to that, are the physical barriers such as Plexiglas that provide protection, but unfortunately also serve as a sound barrier for some.

Audiologist, John Hiller

Studies show that people, especially those with hearing loss, pay close attention to a speaker’s mouth (lip reading) to follow conversational speech. “Simple communication clues like facial expression, and the tone of our voices are lost with mask wearing,” he says.

It is estimated that over 15 per cent of all adults in North America have some type of hearing loss. This number increases dramatically as adults age, with over 50 per cent aged 75 years or older experiencing some form of hearing loss.

In addition to the impact that masks have on people with hearing loss, masks can also pose challenges for individuals who experience verbal communication difficulty, such as those who’ve had a stroke.

“We had a lovely client come to see us,” John explains. “He had a stroke a few years ago and is doing really well, but his speech was impacted. Normally I have no problem communicating with him but now his mask muffles his speech and makes conversation during our appointments challenging.”

So, what can we do to keep the lines of communication open?

As communication professionals, audiologists and speech-language pathologists have the following advice:

• Be sure you have the attention of your communication partner before you speak.
• Make sure you turn to face them, ensuring there is nothing blocking your view of each other.
• Speak a little more slowly and slightly louder but do not shout or exaggerate your speech.
• Use your eyes, hands, and body movements to add more information to your speech.

Another good strategy for communication success, especially important now, is to verify that the person you are speaking to has understood what you have asked or the information that you have shared. A simple way to verify this is to ask the person to repeat what was said. If you’re on the receiving end of the conversation, repeat what you heard to ensure you got it right.

The most important advice of all? Be patient and be kind.

“These are trying times for everyone,” says John, “but it’s so worthwhile when I can create a positive health-care experience for someone, not only by assessing their hearing needs or fixing their hearing aids, but by taking my time, reassuring them and showing some kindness. These are things that go beyond the words we use and connect us all on a positive emotional level.”

This story was written by Judy Davidson, a professional practice consultant with speech-Language Pathology and manager of Audiology with Eastern Health.

For more information on improving communication and mask-wearing, see the following links:

8 Tips for Improving Communication when Wearing a Face Covering

Wearing a Mask Changes Communication for Everyone

• May is Speech and Hearing Month in Canada. For more information: https://speechandhearing.ca/



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