Masks and Social Distance: Helping Students with Hearing Loss
Originally published July 2020
By Michelle A. Veyvoda, PhD, CCC-SLP and Michael Higgins, AuD, CCC-A
As school districts nationwide grapple with re-entry concerns during the COVID-19 pandemic, the most basic needs of some of our most vulnerable children may be overlooked. One such population is children with hearing loss. While some attend schools for the deaf and other specialized settings, increasing numbers of children with hearing loss attend their local schools. And since hearing loss is a low-incidence disability, re-opening procedures may not take into account the specific needs of these children.
Two of the most likely safety protocols teachers can anticipate include social distancing and the wearing of masks or face coverings. While helpful to prevent viral spread, both of these protocols will cause difficulties for young deaf and hard of hearing children in a classroom.
Masks create a barrier between a speaker’s voice and the listener’s ear. This will not only reduce the volume of speech but can also reduce the clarity, making it more difficult for all students—not just those who are hard of hearing—to understand the teacher and their peers. Masks also make speechreading impossible, which is an essential communication strategy for many people with hearing loss.
Social distancing is another factor to consider. It can help control viral spread, but it also reduces the volume of speech. In fact, every time the distance between a speaker and listener is doubled, the sound intensity drops by about 25 percent. Typically, teachers use an FM system—a microphone worn that transmits a direct sound signal to a receiver worn by a child–to help deliver sounds right to their hearing aid or cochlear implant. But speaking into a microphone with a face covering could result in friction between the two surfaces, which could create sound interference.
The interaction of covered faces, increased distance, and microphone interference with existing factors such as sound reverberation, background noise, and linguistic and developmental concerns, means that teachers must be more aware than ever of the listening difficulties of some children in the COVID-era classroom.
To help with these potential issues, we have assembled a list of tips that can be easily incorporated into a typical classroom environment.
Be Aware of Noise Sources
While ventilation and air filtration will undoubtedly be an important part of keeping a healthy classroom this fall, teachers should be aware of the additional noises they may produce and move away from them while speaking. Children with hearing loss should be seated away from noise sources as well.
Assume the Child Hasn’t Heard or Understood
Teachers should operate under the assumption that they were not understood correctly on the first try. Incorporate strategies to ensure full communication access, such as checking for understanding, increasing visual cues like written instructions, flashing the lights to get attention, repeating instructions and questions, and calling a student’s name to ensure you have their attention before asking a question.
Learn More About Listening Technology
FM systems can help to overcome poor classroom acoustics. By wearing an FM receiver, a child receives a strong, clear speech signal from whomever speaks into its transmitter. Work with your students’ hearing resource teacher, the school’s speech pathologist, or the district’s audiologist for a tutorial on listening technology, ways to incorporate captions, and other safe, effective accommodations.
Avoid the Urge to Shout
Shouting, or speaking at an unnaturally loud volume, may make your voice louder but will not make you more easily understood. In fact, shouting often distorts our speech. It will also damage your voice—teachers are twice as likely as non-teachers to experience the symptoms of a voice disorder.
Consider Purchasing a Clear Mask
Some companies have started to produce clear masks to help facilitate better speechreading.
Children with hearing loss exert more effort for listening and understanding, which can lead to mental exhaustion. With increased distance and reduced speechreading access because of masks, they will likely need to pay closer attention, and therefore could benefit from listening breaks.
There’s an App for That
The app Otter provides relatively accurate transcriptions of live speech that users can read from their phone, tablet, or computer and that can also be exported in different file formats or shared with others. Another app, Ava, can provide captioned access to online and in-person group conversations.
Use Closed Captions
Always make sure to enable captions when viewing any type of media with your students.
Keep in mind that your students with hearing loss need access in all situations—emergencies, announcements, specials areas, and for general socializing.
Children with hearing loss add diversity to our classrooms, and the differences in the ways they communicate or access information should be celebrated. As a teacher, consider incorporating lessons on access, equity, and inclusion into discussions. Students can work together to identify ways in which their school community can be more accessible. Or perhaps as a class, everyone could learn some sign language and have even more ways to communicate with each other. And remember, a more accessible and inclusive classroom for a child with a disability is a more accessible and inclusive classroom for every child.
Michelle Veyvoda, PhD, CCC-SLP is an assistant professor of speech-language pathology at Iona College in New Rochelle, NY. She has over 15 years of experience working with deaf/hard of hearing children, and teaches courses in American Sign Language and aural rehabilitation.
Michael Higgins, AuD, CCC-A is a visiting professor at Iona College. He has been an Audiologist for 20 years and has worked with individuals who have hearing loss in the school, hospital, and private practice settings.