Face masks present challenges for P.E.I.'s hearing loss community

Navigating the world through a pandemic can be challenging enough for most people, but with more people and services wearing face coverings, it's almost impossible for those with any form of hearing loss.

'It makes you feel a tremendous loss'

Brenda Porter says she relies heavily on lip reading to be able to understand speech. (Nicole Williams/CBC)

Navigating the world through a pandemic can be challenging enough for most people, but with more people wearing face coverings, it's even more challenging for those with any form of hearing loss.

Brenda Porter from Charlottetown has severe hearing loss in both ears. Even though she has a hearing aid, Porter says she relies heavily on lip reading to understand speech.

"I understand what you're saying with my eyes. I see what you're saying," she said. "If you wear a mask, a normal mask, I cannot see it and therefore I cannot understand it."

The introduction of face masks during the COVID-19 pandemic has meant that reality has become more common. Just a few weeks ago, Canada's Chief Public Health Officer updated guidelines, recommending masks be worn where physical distancing is not possible.

This is a huge problem for a significant segment of the community, and these are valuable people in the community too.— Krista Campbell 

When Porter heard the news, she said her "heart sank."

"It makes you feel a tremendous loss," Porter said. "In some cases [sounds] are a very important thing. So some of them are essential things that you need to be able to know and to hear, and on another dimension it's the richness of life."

"You feel that that kind of richness slipping away."

14,000 on P.E.I. have hearing loss

It's why Porter, who is also a member of the group Hear P.E.I., has been working with her audiologist Krista Campbell to spread awareness and come up with possible solutions for people who may now be wearing face coverings, especially those in the service industry.

"If you are interacting with people, you are interacting with people with hearing loss," Campbell said, adding that there are 14,000 Islanders with hearing loss.

Campbell said it's important that if someone is deaf or partly deaf, they should identify themselves to other people first.

Service providers might be wearing masks for the first time and may not be aware clients need to read lips.

Clear masks, writing tools, talking ahead of time

For those service providers choosing or needing to wear masks, Campbell suggests if possible to use ones with a clear plastic window so others can still see their mouth.

Audiologist Krista Campbell wears a face mask with a clear window so that clients can still read her lips if they need to. (Nicole Williams/CBC)

If those masks are not available, she said it's important to have conversations with patients and clients ahead of time.

"Ask the individual 'How can I help you? Would we do better to talk about what you'd like to have beforehand, you know, while we're distancing, then we'll mask up and get to work?'"

She said this correspondence can even happen over email before service providers and clients meet.

Campbell also suggested service providers have a writing device on hand, like a white board which can be disinfected easily, to communicate with clients without speaking.

Hear P.E.I. is also selling pins to those who are deaf or partly deaf to wear to identify themselves.

"It's a huge concern but I ... intend to start spreading the word as much as I can," said Porter.

"This is a huge problem for a significant segment of the community and these are valuable people in the community too. They're not just patients, they are people who are contributing a lot."

More from CBC P.E.I.

About the Author

Nicole Williams is a video journalist with CBC P.E.I. She previously worked as an associate producer with CBC News in Toronto.


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