COVID 19 has changed the way communication happens. I am 100% in support taking measures to protect others and myself by social distancing and wearing face coverings. I understand that this is a novel virus and there are researchers, infectious disease specialists, and front-line workers who continue to learn and adjust treatment and guidance to help all of us during this pandemic.
After months of being quarantined, states could begin opening safely. Stores and other public places began putting up signage to indicate social distancing of 6 feet apart. Restaurants and stores had to limit the number of customers that could enter. AND Workers and customers need to wear face coverings.
Although I had known that masks and physical distancing were going to be a part of reopening, I did not realize the significant impact that it would have on me until I ventured out. Living with hearing loss in the hearing world, I am continuously finding ways to accommodate and overcome hearing challenges. In fact, it is so ingrained in me, that I do in every situation I am in. I lean in so I can be a little closer and get a better auditory signal. I choose a seat at a table so I can best hear and see others. I watch your face so I can read your lips and emotions.
Masked Out and Exhausted! I went to the grocery store for the first time and I felt like all my coping strategies had been stripped away from me. I was forced to a distance of at least 6 feet. I am surrounded by background noise. The person I am trying to communicate with now has a mask on and I cannot use speech reading cues, emotional/facial cues, and their voice in muffled. This is the first time in a long time that I truly felt disabled.
“Please don’t talk to me, Please don’t talk to me” I said over and over in my head. I have found myself praying that no one would start a conversation. When someone starts talking with a mask, I feel my blood pressure rising. If I need to ask someone where something is, I find myself staying silent rather than asking. It was stressful and created so much anxiety to be in the store.
Like everything in life, sometimes it is the greatest challenges that we face that inspire us to make a change. I was reminded of a quote by the great Helen Keller that I have used in presentations in the past. “Character cannot be developed in ease and in quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, vision cleared, ambition inspired, and success achieved”.
Armed with the Helen Keller quote, I returned to the grocery store for a weekly trip. I went to the deli and the woman had a face shield on for her face covering. WOW! I instantly felt my anxious feeling lighten as I was able to have a conversation about whether I wanted my lunch meat chipped, thinly sliced, or thick sliced.
Another experience moment that I thought I would experience trial and suffering was at the hairdresser. This is a situation that 100% depend on lipreading and facial cues since I need to remove my hearing technology to prevent it from getting wet. My hairdresser knows my challenge and was up to date on my pre and post CI journey. I was so thankful and appreciative when I got to my appointment and Ashley had already thought about my struggle. She had tracked down a face shield and asked me if I wanted her to wear it. I could have jumped out of the chair right then and given her the biggest hug. As Helen Keller said, the VISION was cleared, and I was able to see Ashley’s face helping with the communication breakdown. This little moment gave me the vision to look more into the possibility of face shields and clear masks.
I needed to have firsthand experience with “masked” hardship to have forward thinking of what would happen as the schools open. As an educational audiologist, I need to look at each student individually and understand what options will help a student be successful. I do know that students with hearing challenges are going to be “masked out” (exhausted!). It takes so much energy to listen through a hearing loss under the best of classroom listening conditions. Now we have created a distance factor (which hearing aids and cochlear implant technology is at a disadvantage), muffled speech through a face covering, and no facial/speechreading cues. A balancing act of safety and access is part of my ambition moving forward!
Ambition Inspired: Through a few different channels, I was able to learn more about face shields. A colleague, AU Bankaitis/Oaktree Products, shared knowledge about face shields and clear mask. I also was able to reach out to several different professional organizations such as Educational Audiology Association and American Cochlear Implant Alliance. Through a collaborative effort, ACIA has published a paper exploring shields as a return to school option. https://www.acialliance.org/news/512538/ACI-Alliance-Publishes-Consideration-of-Face-Shields-as-a-Return-to-School-Option.htm. I also was able to participate in a webinar presented by Lightspeed technologies titled Understanding and Overcoming Listening Challenges When Schools Reopen. I was also honored to present with one of my favorite mentors and friends, Dr. Carol Flexer. You can go to this link and register (even though it is over) and then you will be able to see the recorded version. https://marketscale.brand.live/c/lightspeed-live-broadcast?fbclid=IwAR2wYIGaFQf4k_luWpG-2PI9BKdu9XND8Mtphejhlo78ZuDiEiO6LIRfBD0. I have also been able to collaborate with 2 other peeps with CI’s to put together a survey to compare the multiple shields and clear mask that are on the market. Dislaimer, I have bought several to try! If you want to rate one, go to this site! https://tinachildress.wordpress.com/2020/06/21/the-effects-of-face-shields-and-masks-with-clear-windows-on-people-who-are-deaf-hard-of-hearing
I know that there is not a 100% good solution and there is not a one size fits all solution. I do hope that this blog post sheds light. Be patient and know that the struggle is real if you are wearing a mask and trying to talk to me (or anyone with hearing challenges).