Communicating with masks on: What hearing loss doctors want you to know


KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — Knox County has been under a mask mandate for more than two months and people are still struggling to hear each other while wearing them.

Tessie Blanchard, an audiologist student at the University of Tennessee, said understanding conversations with masks on is even harder for people with hearing impairments.

“When I first heard that everyone was going to start wearing masks, I kind of panicked a little bit because I know I rely on lip reading,” Blanchard said.

Blanchard also has severe hearing loss, so she personally knows how masks make communicating more difficult.

While at school and working in the audiology clinic, Blanchard wears a special clear mask so patients can read her lips.

At home, though, she likes to wear a mask that she made, called a window mask. She makes extra for her patients.

A window mask Tessie Blanchard made.

“Some of my patients have purchased because they know they need it for their loved ones and just getting my friends and family around me to start wearing the clear ones just to help me communicate better,” Blanchard said.

Because not everyone has window masks, Blanchard said it’s extremely difficult to hear people talk while wearing masks in certain settings, such as restaurants.

Not only is it impossible to read lips through regular masks, but a regular mask covers the sound waves coming out of the mouth, causing the words to be muffled.

Dr. Steven Doettl, an audiologist specialist at UT’s audiology and speech pathology clinic, said patients who never needed hearing aids are coming in asking for help because they can’t understand what people say through masks.

He said those patients might be just realizing how often they rely on reading lips and suddenly can’t because of the masks.

“I do think that there’s a chance here because of the masks, that we might be able to recognize some untreated and undocumented hearing losses out there, and be able to help people out,” Doetll said.

Even people without hearing impairments have a hard time understanding a conversation through a mask.

Doetll and Blanchard said we should all take steps to be more easily understood through masks.

“You really have to enunciate. Even more than usual. It’s almost like over-enunciating,” Doetll said.

“If there’s a fan blowing in the background or if there’s music on or the television, it’s going to be important to try to turn those things off if possible,” Doetll continued.

“Start talking a little bit slower, a little bit louder, and don’t feel offended if someone asks you to repeat themselves,” Blanchard said.

Blanchard said there are also plenty of speech to text applications that can be used.

For people with androids, Blanchard’s favorite it Google Live Transcribes, but she said almost any phone has a note feature where you can press a little microphone to transcribe a conversation.

Blanchard said the apps don’t catch 100% of the conversation, but it helps close the gap so you can have a better understanding of the conversation.

Both Doetll and Blanchard said body language can help as well. It can help connect some pieces of the conversation, but it can also help the person talking know if they need to talk more clearly.

“If someone is leaning in towards you a little bit more, that’s usually a sign that they are not getting all of the information. If you see them turn their head to angle their ear a little better, or even cupping their ear, that is also a really good visual cue,” Blanchard said.

If you are having a harder time hearing through masks, Doetll said it wouldn’t hurt to get your hearing checked.

He said that unfortunately, doctors everywhere have noticed less patients are getting checked out for health issues because they are nervous about COVID-19.

He said he’s even heard patients ask about the rising case counts at the university. The audiology clinic is currently located on campus, so the patients were worried that vising the clinic was too risky.

Doetll said patients shouldn’t be worried about seeing the doctor, including at the audiology clinic.

He said they practice every safety precaution possible.

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