Communication barrier . . . Endeavouring to have a conversation while wearing face masks are hearing-aid users (from left) Ray Smith, Allan Holland, Joan MacDonnell and Fraser Shewan .PHOTO: HELEN HOLT

by Helen Holt

Mandatory facemasks are making communication harder for hearing aid users.

Hearing Association South Canterbury president Donald Lithgow said many deaf people had resorted to online shopping.

“At the moment a lot of them just don’t go out. When you have to be two metres apart, plus the mask, they can’t hear, so they just give up.”

Timaru hearing aid users Ray Smith, Joan MacDonnell, Allan Holland and Fraser Shewan said mandatory masks made leaving the house and socialising a challenge.

The challenges included muffled speech, hearing aids getting caught in the elastic loops when removing the mask, foggy glasses, and the inability to read facial expressions and recognise people on the street.

Mr Holland said he had lost hearing aids when removing a mask.

“The elastic gets caught underneath the hearing aid, so it comes off with the mask, and they just fall out.”

Mrs MacDonnell, who is also partially blind, said she relies a lot on recognising people’s voices.

“I can’t make out faces, so I rely on their voice. People sound different with a mask, so it takes me longer to recognise them, and the muffled speech makes them harder to hear.”

Mr Smith suggested transparent masks as a possible solution.

They are being used in Japanese television at the moment, and would make it easier to recognise faces, expressions and lip reading, and speech would be less muffled.

However, those masks were not yet mainstream in New Zealand.

Members of the group had used hearing aids for periods of seven to 20 years.

They said the usage was like re-learning how to hear, and mandatory mask-wearing was like learning all over again.

Fraser Shewan’s wife Marlene said they just gave up when they can not hear the other person.

“You see people don’t stop on the footpath for a conversation.

“They’ve realised it’s too hard to hear, so they just don’t talk any more.”

Mr Holland compared the struggles to his deafness before he began wearing hearing aids.

“I stopped going to parties because I couldn’t hear what anyone was saying.

“That’s what it feels like again with the masks.”

Mrs Shewan said some deaf people had become reclusive because communication was too difficult.

The social isolation was also reinforced by postponement of social clubs and events during Alert Level 2.

Senior Citizens Timaru community co-ordinator Chris Thomas said older people were fairly resilient, but the masks posed an additional challenge for reading facial expressions and lip reading.