The social distancing guidelines and the wearing of face masks brought about by the COVID-19 crisis are considered a favorable means to reduce the spread of the virus.
But they have also become somewhat of a hindrance to those of the non-hearing world.
“The widespread use of masks makes it even more difficult for hearing impaired individuals to communicate,” said Sharon Christen, who is a doctor of audiology at the Woodinville Hearing Advancement Center. “The more difficulty a person has hearing the more they rely on facial cues to fill in the blanks they don't hear clearly.”
Christen said the masks also inhibit the understanding of speech to people in both worlds.
“All of us, whether we realize it or not, read lips at least partially,” she said. “For a person with a hearing impairment, the need for that additional information gleaned from the movement of the mouth while speaking is heightened. In conjunction with enunciation and slowing the pace of speech, such communication tools are helpful for a person with a hearing impairment to understand speech and communicate effectively.”
But a solution may be just around the corner.
“Our office is currently working on making masks with clear windows to allow our patients to still be able to see our mouths as we speak to them when providing services,” Christen said. “This will allow for a better understanding of everyone and still keep people safe.”
Christen said their audiology office has been deemed an essential business under the "Stay Home, Stay Healthy" initiative issued by Gov. Jay Inslee. But during the initial calls for social distancing, all of its employees voluntarily implemented a work-from-home policy for the two-week duration as mandated at the time by the initiative.
Following the two-week period that consisted of virtual training, conference calls, data entry, and software seminars, the group formulated a plan to safely and carefully return to limited services at the office.
“We decided to reduce our hours temporarily and are now offering car side services, those activities that we can perform by meeting a patient outside, bringing their hearing aid inside, performing repairs or maintenance, and returning the hearing aid to the patient,” Christen said. “These appointments are typically quick, lasting less than 10 minutes. Our office has always sought to keep patient costs low and many of these services are provided at little to no charge to our clientele.”
Christen said they have also had several requests for services for hearing aids not purchased through the Hearing Advancement Center.
“Some of the popular big-box locations are not currently offering maintenance services at this time, and we are happy to help wherever we can,” she said.
Christen suggests patients call ahead for a scheduled time so they can be sure someone is free to help them when they arrive.
“For the hearing-impaired, loss of a hearing aid due to damage or malfunction limits or removes their ability to communicate. It's an isolating and troubling thing to be unable to hear, particularly in such high-stress times. Missing a few words of a televised address might mean missing vital information about safety,” Christen said. “Being unable to hear on the phone, particularly with so many local nursing homes and retirement facilities on lockdown, removes the ability to talk to loved ones. In a time when we are all missing our friends and families due to social isolation, further isolation through the loss of a primary sense can be devastating. It can increase fatigue and irritability, and in the long term can affect memory function.”
Car side appointments may be scheduled Monday through Thursday from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., and Fridays from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.
“We know these times are trying and frightening for many” Christen said. “If we can help in some small way by letting people maintain communication with the world around them and those they love, we are happy to do so.”