Pandemic measures mean extra challenges for people with hearing loss
Masks, plexiglass barriers, and reliance on virtual meetings can make communication difficult
For Kim Scott, dealing with feelings of isolation is nothing new. Scott grew up with progressive hearing loss, and over the years she got used to spending a lot of time alone, because of the challenges of communicating with others.
But as the world has shifted to virtual communication amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Scott says feelings of isolation for herself and others with hearing loss are "compounded."
"There's a lot of challenges people are facing, you know, in terms of just staying in touch with work or loved ones," said Scott, who is the executive director of the Sudbury branch of the Canadian Hard of Hearing Association.
"This is just increasing our isolation even further."
One of the key challenges for people with hearing loss, Scott says, is the ability to participate in phone calls, particularly with multiple people, rather than in-person meetings.
"Conference calling, you don't have any visual cues. And you don't get the clarity of sound through a telephone that you get with a face to face."
Scott has had a cochlear implant for three decades, and while it helps her communicate, she says its important to remember that cochlear implants and hearing aids "don't restore hearing to normal."
"And as a result, you know, everything you know that other just take for granted, it's still a real challenge," Scott said.
While video-calls have the benefit of visual cues, Scott says the audio quality is often poor, and those kinds of calls are inaccessible without computerized note-taking or captioning.
Masks, barriers add extra challenge
While many people are relishing the ability to get out into the community a bit more, as the province begins to reopen, Scott says people with hearing loss are now facing new barriers. In particular, the face masks and plexiglass barriers that are becoming more and more common.
"It's making it extremely challenging for us to get back out there on any level and be able to communicate and function."
Particularly in noisy environments, Scott says it was already often a challenge to clearly discern what someone was saying. Now, voices are more muffled, and there's no longer the benefit of mouths and facial expressions to aid understanding.
"The masks obviously are needed for everybody's safety at this point in time. And we don't want to compromise that. But you know it really increases the stress level, the sense of loneliness, and you know being on the outside of everything when you can't communicate," Scott said.
Scott says the association plans to approach local businesses to ask about adding aids such as microphones for cashiers.
Scott says concerns around communication and understanding are more than "just a matter of convenience."
"If you're going to visit your doctor, you know already it was very difficult, and now they're wearing masks, you know, and you need to understand, this is important for your health to understand what is being said to you," Scott said.
She said she has learned to speak up about her hearing difficulties, and is encouraging others to do the same. She says cashiers will often pull their mask down for a moment, from behind their barrier, so she can better understand them. She also suggests travelling with a pen and paper.
As everyone adjusts to new realities, and new ways of communicating, Scott hopes people's pandemic experiences might give them a better understanding of the isolation that many people experience regularly.
"You're getting a little glimpse into what life is like. Not just for a few months, but for your entire life when you live with hearing loss."