Pandemic creates unique challenges for people with hearing loss, says Hear Quebec

For those who rely on reading people’s lips to communicate, face masks and teleconferencing have become new obstacles to overcome.

Face masks, teleconferencing present obstacles for people who rely on lip reading

Abby Stonehouse is the program co-ordinator at Hear Quebec, a non-profit organization that supports people with hearing loss. (Dave St-Amant/CBC)

Abby Stonehouse has moderate hearing loss in both of her ears. Six years ago, she was given hearing aids to help her communicate.

But, she quickly learned that the devices weren't enough to help her navigate conversations. So, she taught herself to read people's lips and facial expressions.

When the pandemic hit, she was back to square one.

"Some of the tools I learned [...] to deal with hearing loss, no longer really apply," she said. "And when people started wearing masks at the beginning — especially in public areas such as pharmacies, grocery stores — that became more and more difficult."

Stonehouse explains that face masks make it hard to read not just lips, but facial expressions as well.

After months of trying to adapt to masks, Stonehouse says she's become more accustomed to the routine and is able to anticipate the questions she thinks she is hearing.

Clear face masks a solution

For Katrina Tarondo, a board member of Hear Quebec, adjusting to the new reality was also a challenge.

"I didn't realize how much I rely on facial expressions, and the way words are said on the lips and the way people say things, and all these things add to language," Tarondo said.

Tarondo was diagnosed with a hearing loss as a child and attended the Montreal Oral School for the Deaf. 

Katrina Tarondo sent a letter to the city of Montreal to encourage public officials to wear clear masks. (Submitted by Katrina Tarondo)

While she was never taught to read lips, Tarondo says she never realized — until the pandemic — how much she depended on visual cues.

So she wrote an open letter to Mayor Valérie Plante, urging her and other public officials to wear clear face masks.

"We were trying to encourage public officials to wear clear masks, which will encourage the general public to wear [clear] masks."

For both Tarondo and Stonehouse, working from home was another daunting challenge.

Video calls with poor sound and internet lags made communication more difficult, said Stonehouse.

"When we first started working from home, I found it very, very challenging when we had video conference calls," she said. " I couldn't use some of the communication strategies I was used to."

She explained that, although these calls were easier than a phone call, her understanding depends on a good internet connection and the person has to be facing the camera. 

Heidy Wager, executive director of Hear Quebec, says hearing loss is an invisible disability and people need to be conscious of it. (CBC)

More people turn to Hear Quebec

Heidy Wager, executive director of Hear Quebec, says these types of challenges result in some people with hearing loss feeling left out or excluded.

"People [were] being kept out of meetings," she said. "Like, 'oh well, we'll catch you up with the notes in the minutes.' But then they lose their voice, they lose their voice to participate in the staff meeting, to share their opinion. It's only an afterthought."

Wager says more options are now available for people with hearing loss, like Google Meet where there is live closed captioning that transcribes the conversation in real time.

Wager said hearing loss is "an invisible disability" and people need to be conscious of how their friends and colleagues are constantly adapting to new challenges during the pandemic.