FARGO — Nothing much stops Elizabeth Galvan. The Fargo woman is a competitive bodybuilder and mom who just happens to be deaf, missing part of her arm and is losing her vision because of a condition known as Usher’s syndrome.
Her work ethnic, determination and drive has gotten her to where she is today, but the pandemic has created a new obstacle she’s never faced before — trying to maintain effective communication in a sea of face masks.
“It’s really challenging because I’m unable to do lipreadings with the mask covering,” she says.
Galvan works in the apparel department at a Walmart in Fargo. She says she normally communicates with customers and colleagues by lipreading, using gestures and texting on her phone. But as more people started wearing masks, as recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, she had to shift gears.
“Some are willing to pull the masks down to do lipreading, plus I’ll pull my mask down to communicate,” she said. “It’s really a challenging part because I am very used to doing lipreading everyday with customers or with other associates.”
It’s leaving those who are deaf or partially deaf (by some accounts, there are about 48 million Americans with some hearing loss) in a bind — trying to follow CDC guidelines while still being able to communicate. Even those with minor hearing loss are impacted because the masks muffle voices enough to make some conversation indecipherable, and if that weren’t enough to impede communication, the masks themselves can interfere with hearing aids.
“The elastic that goes around my ear is close to where the microphone speakers are, so it will rasp, so there’s a feedback,” said Paul Sando, a professor at Minnesota State University Moorhead.
Sando has worn hearing aids since 1997, and even though he can still hear, he, like Galvan, relies upon visual cues of lipreading to assist his understanding.
“Most people with hearing loss have become good at reading lips. We’ve adapted to become so,” he said. “That’s harder now.”
“When someone has a hearing loss, regardless of the severity, they learn to rely on lipreading to understand the meaning of what is being said,” said Dr. Andrea Wilson, an audiologist in Bemidji, Minn. “They also may rely on visual cues, such as a smile or frown, to understand the tone being conveyed in someone's message to them.
What can those with hearing loss do?
So what can be done to ease communication without ditching the face coverings and risking exposure to COVID-19? Some health care workers (especially those in long term care facilities with a high population of people with hearing loss) are wearing something called “communicator masks” — a mask with a clear panel in the front.
Emily Brooks, who has been making face masks almost from the beginning of the pandemic, found a pattern and started making them recently.
“I became interested in creating a product like this from finding out that it could be beneficial for the hearing impaired community. Just knowing that there is a need for a product like this that can be helpful to others pushed me to give it a try,” said Brooks. You can learn more about her masks at taeamade.com. If you'd like to make your own, patterns can be found online.
Galvan seemed excited about the idea.
“Yes! That will benefit a lot — from associates, to customers to myself,” she said. “We wouldn’t risk more for pulling our masks down to communicate, so that would be safer.”
Those fighting with hearing aid interference might consider a hat or headband with buttons on them to wrap the elastic around, or some masks have straps that wrap around the head, not the ears.
Sando might be on board for that.
“I have my hearing aids. I have my readers. I put on my mask, and my ears are sticking out like this,” he said. “I’m starting to look like a grumpy old Baby Yoda.”
What can other people do?
Dr. Wilson recommends the wearing of safe, communicator masks to enable lipreading. She says only lower the mask when you’re 6 feet apart from each other. Also, be deliberate while talking to someone with hearing loss, especially in these days of face masks.
“Speak more clearly and stop regularly to ensure the person with hearing impairment has understood you,” Wilson said.
Sando’s wife, Jean, has learned to do that, since she knows hearing aids don’t correct hearing loss completely
“When I’m trying to get his attention, I’ll clearly say his name, twice. 'Paul, Paul,’ I’ll use hand gestures and make eye contact,” she said.
As is the case in so much with the pandemic, there’s a learning curve when it comes to helping those with hearing loss maintain proper communication.
“If masks are necessary, they’re necessary. We’ll just do the best we can do,” said Sando.