Deaf People Disadvantaged By Face Coverings & Coronavirus in General

This is a thought-provoking article from the BBC website, looking at how face coverings are potentially disadvantaging those with hearing impairments.


People who are deaf or have hearing loss will struggle to communicate if more people wear non-medical face masks during the coronavirus pandemic, a charity has said. Face coverings are not advised in Wales, but are part of the strategy for easing England’s lockdown. Action on Hearing Loss said people could feel “even more isolated and scared” at an already difficult time. It said there are more than 575,000 people in Wales with hearing loss.

Karen Robson, of Action on Hearing Loss, said: “We’re hearing a lot of concerns from the deaf community and those with hearing loss. Many people who are deaf or have hearing loss rely heavily on visual cues for effective communication, including facial expressions and lip-reading. Being able to see lip patterns and facial expressions is also vital for those who communicate through British Sign Language. Many of these people will be unavoidably impeded by face coverings,” Ms Robson said.

“This has the potential to create further isolation amongst an already marginalised community of people, causing additional stress and anxiety to people at an already very difficult time.”

With England’s advice to cover faces in some public places, it is anticipated more people in Wales will choose to wear masks too. With more than 70% of the over-70s living with hearing loss, the charity said those people were also more likely to end up in hospital being treated for coronavirus. There they can experience similar communication problems with nurses and doctors wearing personal protective equipment (PPE), due to being unable to lip-read or properly read expressions, and with sound more muffled by the equipment.

The UK government said it was supporting CARDMEDIC, which provides digital flashcards and other communication aids to NHS Trusts across the UK to help communicate with patients with hearing loss.

A woman from mid Wales, who did not wish to be named, said face coverings posed significant problems for her 11-year-old daughter who has hearing loss.

“British Sign Language relies heavily on facial expression which is why in itself it’s not an answer to the problem of mask wearing. It will help a lot but people who purely use BSL will miss out a lot on the facial expression aspect of the language, and most will use some level of lip-reading. It’s also really hard to sign without touching your face.”

She said she was also worried about patients not being able to communicate properly.
“The difficulty of communication when wearing PPE is very near the top of my list of reasons why my daughter has to be kept safe [from coronavirus]. The thought of her having to go to hospital, alone, with people who don’t know her and who can’t communicate with her, frightens me more than the illness. There are going to be people that it’s happened to who have lasting trauma because of it. I knew medics in PPE are verbalising their usually non-verbal stuff, literally saying ‘I am smiling at you’ to patients.”

Paul Myres, a retired Wrexham GP with hearing loss, said he too had heard of healthcare workers finding such ways to communicate. Dr Myers, who was Public Health Wales’ lead for primary care quality and development for 10 years and a GP for 30 years, said: “Speech through masks is indistinct.
“Not only have I lost sound level but I have also lost some definition of speech, so any additional blurring makes interpretation difficult or impossible.I tend to move closer to speakers to catch what they say. This is not compatible with distancing.”