Ottawa·Point of View

How COVID-19 is unmasking my hearing loss

John Watters wears a mask to go out shopping during the pandemic. But as a person with a hearing disability, this common measure that's supposed to keep him safe can also prevent him from communicating with others.

John Watters worries widespread use of protective masks will become a problem for people with hearing loss

People wearing protective masks wait to enter a bank in the Flushing section of the Queens borough of New York on June 8 2020. (Frank Franklin II/The Associated Press)

When Dr. Theresa Tam spoke about the importance of masks, I, like many, purchased masks.

Now, when I am out shopping I wear a mask.

But I am also a person with hearing loss, and the now widespread use of masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19 is a problem for me.

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I was born with hearing loss. I have adapted by lip-reading and moving closer to the speaker. 

I acquired hearing aids when I was 15. As technology improved, I added a Bluetooth adapter and Roger Pen, a tool that helps direct sound into my hearing aids, especially in large group settings. 

Now that many are wearing masks, the problem is that not only do they hinder the transmission of the virus; they also hinder the transmission of sound.- John Watters

But what many don't realize is that hearing aids do not make my hearing "normal." They are a tool to help me hear better, but they by no means create a non-disabled hearing environment. I still struggle to hear sometimes. I still rely on lip-reading and moving closer to the speaker to understand.

John Watters was born with hearing loss. Though he wears a mask when he goes out shopping, he worries their widespread use will cause problems for those with hearing disabilities. (Submitted by John Watters)

Now that many are wearing masks, the problem is that not only do they hinder the transmission of the virus; they also hinder the transmission of sound. 

For me to hear properly, I need clarity of sound. If you are speaking behind a mask I will hear that you are speaking to me, but I am less likely to hear your actual words, and so I may not understand you. 

This has been an issue already when I've been out grocery shopping, when donating blood or at the bagel shop. I've had to ask people wearing masks to repeat what they said. Or I will say, "I'm hard of hearing, you said [fill in the blank], is that correct?" 

Watters writes that for people with hearing loss, a mask can be a serious obstacle to communication. (Submitted by John Watters)

This became a problem recently when I went to my local bank. I waited outside in line, respecting social distancing. Eventually, I was at the front of the line and I thought it was my turn to enter. I went in, not realizing there were already too many people inside. A masked official spoke from afar, but I didn't understand him and so I moved closer. He began to wave his hands and make more sounds I could not comprehend. 

Eventually, I realized he must be trying to signal that I should go back outside and continue to wait. But I had to communicate to him that he should be aware that some customers have hearing loss, and that waving hands does not facilitate understanding. It's also demeaning.

Masks are now mandatory on OC Transpo buses, on planes and in some stores. Some have suggested masks be made mandatory everywhere.

This makes me concerned as I don't believe those with a hearing loss were considered in these policy decisions, and there will be challenges that need to be addressed. 

Despite being told he'd probably never attend university, Watters graduated with two degrees from Carleton. (Submitted by John Watters)

I want to add that my situation is different from other persons with hearing disabilities; one size doesn't fit all. How do we accommodate all of our needs?

Failure to do so will deny those with hearing disabilities equality required by human rights legislation. I have personally experienced what it means to be undervalued, and as a result not accommodated.

As a child, people made the assumption that for me, post-secondary schooling was impossible. When I graduated high school, my goal was to work in the justice field. I applied to Carleton University but was not accepted due to my high school grades. I was fortunate that admissions gave my application a second look, allowing me to pursue my studies in criminology. In the end, I earned two degrees and now have 29 years experience as a probation officer. I spoke recently at a university convocation as an alumni mentor.

Watters delivers a speech at a convocation ceremony at Carleton University in June 2019. (Submitted by John Watters)

This tells me that if we find a way to accommodate a person's disability, we give them a fair chance.

Masks may be a common sight until we get a vaccine. It's clear they are a necessary public health tool as we make our way through this difficult time. But it's also important to accommodate those who will struggle more because of masks. 

It's time to have a respectful inquiry, asking those with hearing disabilities to help develop appropriate policies and practices. This is to "hear" what we have to say.

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