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#TheSoapbox: Pandemic ‘new normal’ creates real challenges for those of us with hearing loss

Masks and physical distancing make communication particularly difficult
hard of hearing deaf stock

By Lindsey Williams-Guenette

The New Normal Individuals, who are in the deaf and hard of hearing community, are navigating their own way through this new, unique set of challenges from this coronavirus pandemic. 

People with this disability face daily challenges in their everyday lives even before this pandemic happened. The new practices the government put in place — wearing masks and physical distancing, in particular — makes it much more difficult for people who are deaf or hard of hearing.

Physical distancing has been hard for people in this community because we rely on body language and touch to feel connected. Facial expression is big with communicating as we use that to reflect the tone of the conversation. 

I’m deaf in one ear and hard of hearing in the other ear. This makes it hard to communicate with others, especially when half their faces are covered and all you see are people’s eyes. 

With my job in the education field, everything has turned to virtual learning. Trying to adapt to lip-reading through a camera has its own challenges. The audio quality is different every time you turn on the microphone. It’s all about adapting to your new environment. 

With the pandemic forcing us to isolate ourselves from others, it gives people an idea what life is like living in our shoes. Those of us with hearing challenges live in isolation our whole lives, not just for a short period of time. This is how deaf and hearing impaired individuals live everyday. 

So, are you going stir crazy? Are you feeling low or borderline depressed? Are you lonely? Welcome to the life of being deaf and/or hard of hearing. We always feel detached and in our own world.

While our society is adapting to the “new normal” and going out in the community with each city or town opening more businesses, parks, beaches and walking paths, the deaf and hard of hearing community is facing new challenges and barriers. Masks and plexiglass in stores has added more anxiety and stress to my life, and I'm sure to others in the deaf/hard of hearing community.

Going into Costco during this pandemic has really opened my eyes to how different the “new normal” will be and how much more difficult my life will become because of COVID-19. Masks or face-coverings are becoming more and more common. Not being able to see facial expressions, not being able to understand muffled sounds coming from under the mask, not being able to understand anything creates such chaos in my head.

As previously mentioned, those of us in the deaf/hard of hearing community use everything possible to carry on a conversation, particularly body language, lip-reading and facial expressions. These provide helpful physical clues that allow us to be part of conversations. So when other people wear masks, it takes away many clues for me. 

Masks create a language barrier to lip reading that leaves us off balance and needing to regroup. I feel like I've gone from this independent fire cracker to this fragile, dependent individual in a matter of three months.

It’s extremely hard to get back out there and try and use the life tools you rely on. It makes you feel like a child all over again. People don’t “see” that another person is deaf or hard of hearing — it’s not a visible disability unless you can see the hearing aid, the cochlear implant, or see sign language being used between two people. 

We are not going to walk around with signs on our backs telling the world we can’t hear. All we ask is for people to be more empathetic and compassionate. If you run into someone and they don't respond, please don’t be impatient. Take the time and see if you can help. 

Ask the person, “How can I communicate with you?” Ways that you could try and communicate with people who are deaf/hard of hearing include the use of pen and paper, speech to text, text the person, use a clear shield face mask, talk slower and make sure the person is facing you. 

Try to really focus on what you are trying to tell them and be very clear when you’re speaking. The whole six-feet apart, social distancing protocol creates a problem for the deaf and hard of hearing community because as distance increases, sound decreases. The farther away you get, the harder a conversation will be to participate in. 

I find myself taking a family member or a friend with me when I go out to stores. It definitely eases my stress, but the person with me also helps by telling me if someone is behind me or if someone is talking to me. 

Having trusting close family members and friends in all of this is important because these people are your “ears.” They keep you safe because of the barriers you face. 

Being in my shoes is very challenging at times, when it comes to the mental capacity of dealing with being deaf and not hearing like a normal person would. Many people with hearing loss struggle with anxiety, social isolation, depression, embarrassment, awkwardness, loneliness and so forth. 

Hearing loss is a condition that affects your life every day and it can have a serious impact on your well-being. The ability to hear is an important factor related to your sense of safety. When you aren’t able to hear a phone, alarm, sirens, cries for help or even someone approaching you, increased anxiety and subsequent stress can be the unfortunate results. 

Whether you’re alone or taking care of someone else, fearing the worst and not being able to hear, it can cause a sense of uneasiness. When you feel relaxed and secure in your own safety net, it is easier to have a calm and stress-free mind. 

Many people who are deaf/hard of hearing experience social isolation, whether they realize it or not. It might begin with avoiding large parties or gatherings, and trickle down to cancelling on smaller, intimate affairs. For those with hearing loss, large groups and noisy environments can make it even more difficult to hear, engage in conversations and contribute to social situations. 

I find myself constantly looking around the area to read people’s lips in order to try and keep up with the conversations. Stepping away or quiet time makes it easier for people with hearing loss to re-engage in social situations and refocus on building friendships and relationships. Finding those people to build such trusting friendships/relationships with can be difficult for people with hearing loss. You’re putting trust in that person to help make sure you are safe. 

Explaining to new people about what you need, is not ideal. For me, it’s embarrassing, but I also need to know that I will be safe, feel at ease and be much more comfortable. With my hearing loss, I have a hard time with sense of direction and where the sound is coming from. This has caused many moments of embarrassment and stress. It makes you feel tense and insecure. 

You are always on your toes, trying to make sure you don’t miss anything. It is embarrassing when you have to keep repeating yourself, especially when you appear to have an accent to others. 

Hearing loss can be exhausting, especially when you are constantly having to be a professional lip reader. My hearing loss has affected people who are close to me and the way I experience life. I’ve lost friends, and have been misunderstood many times. It’s not an easy road by any means. It’s not easy having one of your senses taken away. For example, when it’s dark out and you’re deaf, you now have taken away the ability to see clearly. This heightens your stress and you get tense because now you have two senses gone. 

So, if you ever have the pleasure of knowing a person like myself, embrace it. Enjoy the experience, be patient with them, be supportive and be mindful of situations. Don’t make them feel like they are inadequate. Be inclusive, especially in this so-called “ new normal” life. Be more self-aware of the people around you. Be Kind.

Lindsey Williams-Gunette resides in Greater Sudbury. She works for the Rainbow District School Board, a volunteer coach and enjoys sports in her spare time.