A new research paper, entitled Covid-19 Lockdown Affects Hearing Disability and Handicap in Diverse Ways has just been published. The article gives details of a study carried out by Jack Holman, Louise Burke, and project leader Graham Naylor, research fellows at the Nottingham University Hearing Sciences (Scottish Section).
The aim of the study was ‘to explore the perceived effects of Covid-19 social distancing restrictions and safety measures on people with hearing loss’. Participants were asked about how aspects of lockdown, including face masks, social distancing, and video calling had affected their behaviour, emotions, hearing performance, hearing device problems, and tinnitus. Information was collected via a questionnaire and was completed by 129 adults with hearing loss, living in Glasgow, Scotland.
After reading the paper, I felt impelled to reflect upon my own lockdown experience while living with single-sided deafness.
Challenging listening situations can pose a daily strain on people with hearing loss, and social activities such as going to a cafe or restaurant cause a lot of anxiety. One of the study findings that I strongly identify with is that participants with worse hearing ‘show substantial relief at not being obliged to attend challenging social gatherings’.
When attempting to converse amongst background noise, I use a combination of techniques; I focus intently on identifying some letter sounds or words and then use contextual knowledge and the shape of the speaker’s lips to try and understand enough of speech to grasp the intended meaning. Drawing upon so many skills for extended amounts of time can be exhausting. It is not surprising that some people with hearing loss have found relief in having a break from social situations.
I am currently living in Spain and have naturally been saddened by missed planned trips to visit family in the UK. Though, during lockdown, we maintained contact, as usual, through video calls.
Among the study results, it was identified that the frequency of video call use has gone up, although the enjoyment of those calls is mixed. Participants with worse hearing loss tended to struggle more in video calls.
Taking part in online meetings can be mentally tiring. Without access to the speaker’s body language, a lot of concentration is needed to help gauge connotations in speech. Also, there are often technical issues with connectivity and unclear speech and echoes.
However, I have realised some positives in meeting in an online environment, in particular, when connecting with friends via video call. When using online platforms for social meetings, I have more control over the conditions of communication; I can manage the level of background noise and using headphones enables me to hear friends more clearly than when meeting in person. Conversations with friends during lockdown were meaningful; we took turns to speak and listen to each other. Of course, catching up over a virtual coffee cannot replace the human interaction of meeting up in person, but there were some benefits.
Regarding face masks, the study found that ‘communication with people using face masks was harder due to both muffled speech and lack of visual cues.’
I have had both positive and negative experiences regarding communication with people wearing face masks. When faces are covered, it adds an extra barrier for achieving successful communication. Muffled voices and concealed facial expressions can make communication difficult for everyone, not just those with hearing loss.
I have noticed people becoming more patient when others don’t immediately understand them, and some seem to be making an effort to speak more clearly. Repetition of missed dialogue is becoming more common during everyday interactions, and gestures seem to be being used more often to help convey meaning. However, some are yet to implement measures to aid a more effective approach to communicate from behind the face mask.
A final thought
It is promising to see some focus being brought to the practical, social, and emotional effects of hearing loss, during lockdown. I hope studies like this will help to bring more awareness to the challenges of living with hearing loss and associated issues, not only during lockdown but in everyday life.
You can read the full research paper here.