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Face Coverings Causing Miscommunication and Revealing Potential Hearing Problems

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Two-thirds of the population struggle to understand people talking to them if the person speaking is wearing a mask, according to new research, with the findings highlighting the importance of lip reading and facial expressions while communicating.

With face coverings now a legal requirement in some settings across the UK and Ireland in a bid to help control the spread of COVID-19, millions of people are finding day-to-day interactions more of a challenge.

In a survey of 2,000 people, 60% of those who find it difficult to understand what someone wearing a mask is saying to them said it was because their voices were muffled. Just over a fifth (22%) said it was because they couldn’t lip read them, and 18% said it was because they had hearing problems.

The research, which was commissioned by Bayfields Opticians and Audiologists, also found that only two-fifths of people were confident that other people could understand them fully if they were wearing a mask. A third (30%) said they were often misunderstood when wearing a mask, while a fifth weren’t sure.

Paul Jackson, head of audiology for Bayfields Opticians and Audiologists, said: ‘While it’s understandable that face coverings are an important part of controlling the coronavirus, it does impact the day-to-day lives of millions of people who have hearing problems. Organisations like RNID are working hard to help deaf people and those with hearing problems during these difficult times. We wanted to get a deeper understanding of the challenges people face, as we know that some people may not have realised that they have hearing problems until recently.

‘We all use lip reading and facial expressions to some extent when we’re communicating, even if we’re not aware of it. However, some people may have started to realise, with the increasing use of face coverings, just how much they relied on this when trying to hear people. Masks do muffle voices, so it might not be a sign of anything serious if you have difficulties understanding people. But if you are worried, we’d urge people to get their ears checked through an online hearing test or visit your local audiologist.’

Head of research and policy, RNID, Ayla Ozmen said: ‘Face coverings are having a huge effect on the millions of people in the UK who are deaf or have hearing loss. They present a communication barrier that results in many feeling even more isolated and anxious at an already difficult time. Many people who are deaf or have hearing loss rely heavily on visual cues for effective communication, including facial expressions and lip-reading. Being able to see lip patterns and facial expressions is also vital for those who communicate through British Sign Language. Words which sound similar but have different meanings become very difficult to distinguish. This can lead to a breakdown in communication.

‘Too often, people who are deaf or have hearing loss find that society isn’t deaf aware. For people with hearing loss to be able to go about their daily lives, it is now even more important that everyone, especially those providing frontline services to the public, considers how they communicate with each other, to be as inclusive as possible.’

People don’t necessarily need to visit a practice in person to get a hearing test, there are free online hearing tests available.

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