In response to COVID-19, many people are wearing masks and/or standing six feet apart while in the community. This presents some challenges for everyone, but especially people with hearing loss or communication problems. However, there is no evidence that use of face masks prevents or delays speech and language development. There is evidence that mask use reduces infection. The benefits of mask use should outweigh any concerns about possible impact on speech and language development. ASHA follows CDC guidance regarding mask use and places a priority, first and foremost, on health and safety.
Wearing masks can sometimes make communication more difficult, especially for people who have trouble speaking or hearing.
How Masks Can Make It Harder to Communicate
- Masks muffle sound, making it more difficult to understand speech and some higher-pitched voices.
- Masks take away our ability to read lips and see facial expressions, which help us better understand what we’re hearing.
- Speaking with a mask can be hard for people with communication problems, like aphasia or voice problems.
- Masks can be uncomfortable for people who wear hearing aids or cochlear implants (see tips below).
For more information on the impact of masks and strategies while wearing them see the Masks and Vocal Health: One Voice At A Time resource from the Voice and Swallowing Mechanics Lab at the University of Cincinnati.
Improving Communication With Alternatives to Standard Masks
Different types of masks and barriers can help people communicate more easily. Some examples are masks with clear panels, face shields made of clear plastic, and clear barriers like plexiglass.
Tips for Wearing Hearing Aids or Cochlear Implants With a Mask
- Secure your device with wig tape or other non-damaging material, like a cloth headband.
- Instead of looping the mask over your ears, use a button extender for the mask to attach it behind your head.
- Take your mask off in a safe place, then check your device to make sure it’s working.
- Choose a mask that has four string ties instead of ear loops.
Physical distancing can also create challenges for communication.
How Physical Distancing Can Make It Harder to Communicate
- Speech can sound quieter because sound levels go down with distance.
- Focusing your attention on speech can be harder at a distance with other sounds in the environment, like birds chirping or a blaring car radio.
- We can’t lean in or get closer, or use other similar strategies, to help fix a communication breakdown.
- It’s more difficult to see visual cues, such as facial expression and speakers’ lips, at a distance.
Tips for Communicating While Wearing a Mask or Physical Distancing
- Make sure you have your communication partner’s attention.
- Face your partner directly, and make sure nothing is blocking your view.
- Talk a little louder.
- Talk a little slower.
- Use your hands and your body language.
- Ask your partner if they understood you; if not, say it a different way or write it down.
- Move to a quiet place if you can.
- If you’re talking with someone new, ask if there’s anything you can do to make communication easier for both of you.
Audiologists and speech-language pathologists can help—find a professional on ASHA ProFind.