Masks a cause of concern for parents of deaf and hard-of-hearing students

With masks mandatory at schools, many parents are worried for their hard-of-hearing children’s ability to learn in class.

Deaf and hard-of-hearing students rely on lip-reading and an FM system to communicate and learn

Betsy Moog Brooks, the executive director at Moog Centre, wearing a completely clear mask. (Amanda Rudge)

If you are at a club with music playing, it takes effort not only to speak to another person but also to listen.

Life for hard-of-hearing individuals is like being in a bar with music playing. Now add masks to the mix and the effort required to communicate doubles.

With masks mandatory at schools, many parents are worried for their deaf and hard-of-hearing (HOH) children's ability to learn in class. HOH students that go to mainstream schools rely on facial cues, lip-reading and some on an FM radio system where the teacher will wear a microphone that connects to the student's hearing aid. 

Masks not only prevent these students from lip-reading but also muffle the sounds coming from their FM systems, thus making learning harder. 

Edmonton mom Alexandra Kalutich's nine-year-old son Angelo is hard-of-hearing. 

She said she is continuing online education for her nine-year-old for now as the school had not informed them if any accommodations were in place yet. 

"He needs to be able to visually see the lips because a huge part of his learning is lip reading and comprehension is reading lips as well. If the teacher's not wearing that FM system, then it's very difficult for him to follow in a classroom," she said. 

"Where we were concerned was, is he going to be able to hear his teacher? Because how does she put the microphone under the mask? If she's talking through the mask, it's muffled." 

Kalutich said she sent the school information on masks but had not heard back about what their plans were. 

The province has asked schools to "enable the full participation and inclusion of students with disabilities — this would include students who are deaf or hard of hearing," wrote Colin Aitchinson, press secretary to the Minister of Education in an email. 

"In circumstances in which students who require specialized supports and services are not able to follow guidelines and require support and adaptation to public health measures, plans must be developed to ensure their inclusion."

The Edmonton Public School Board said they are working on getting clear masks for teachers of deaf and hard-of-hearing students. 

Amber Darragh, an audiologist with EPSB said they have been having conversations with schools to figure out what's best for students since April. 

"Meeting with teachers and parents and letting them know what are the clear mask options. What are the pros and cons so we can figure out … what works best for the teacher, but also what works best for the student," she said. 

"Because one mask that works really well for a student who maybe has really severe hearing loss might not be the best one that works for someone with mild hearing loss. So it's going to be very individual depending on the student and the teacher."

Betsy Moog Brooks, the executive director at Moog Centre, wearing a face shield with an apron. This type of mask was considered the best option to not only offer protection but also for clear communication. (Amanda Rudge)

The Moog Centre for Deaf Education in St. Louis, Missouri, did a lot of research this year on what kind of mask options are there. 

The research was conducted by Amanda Rudge, director of research and developmentc and executive director Betsy Moog Brooks. They looked into four types of masks: a regular cloth mask, a cloth mask with a clear plastic window, a completely clear mask and a face shield. 

Their research found that a face shield offered the same level of communication as not wearing anything on the face does. 

"A face shield is not approved as protection because it's open at the bottom," Brooks said. 

"So our idea back in the spring was that we would use the face shield, they'll put on that microphone right here and then we would put essentially cloth or fabric, drape it down against our chest so we would be covered, like you would be covered like if you had on a cloth mask."

The clothed shield is not available in markets but Brooks said they are considering creating them for schools in St. Louis. 

Effort to learn has increased

A survey conducted by University of Alberta audiology professor Bill Hodgetts is looking into the impact of the pandemic on hard-of-hearing individuals.

Hodgetts said for hard-of-hearing people trying to acquire information takes a lot more effort. But because they are motivated to listen to a person, they will put in all the effort to make sure they understand what is being said.

"What we're seeing for people with hearing loss is that the effort has gone up tremendously to learn," he said.

He said this increased effort can be exhausting, and this stress of trying to learn and acquire information, especially in class, can cause extra anxiety for the hard-of-hearing. 

"If we're all tapped out with something like this, going back to school in the fall makes them feel like they are just detached from the rest of their classmates," he said. 

"That's going to be a big issue and there needs to be support for those individuals."


Kashmala Fida Mohatarem is a reporter and associate producer with CBC Edmonton.


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