Coronavirus and People with Hearing Loss

The new coronavirus COVID-19 is an equal opportunity infector, affecting rich and poor, young and old, healthy and sickly. Among the more prominent victims is an attendee at the annual Conservative Public Action Conference (CPAC), exposure to whom has led President Trump’s new chief of staff to self-quarantine. The head of New York’s Port Authority and his socialite wife, the head of the Central Park Conservancy, are infected. There’s been less focus on the poor, virus-4835736_1920-1although in the past day or so people have begun to realize that those in homeless shelters, where beds may be only two feet apart, are at risk.

The old are at higher risk but the young are not exempt. People with chronic conditions like diabetes, lung disease and immune-suppressing conditions are also at higher risk, but many victims so far have been healthy adults.

  • People with hearing loss may be affected in less obvious ways. What serves as protection to one individual acts as a barrier to communication to another.

Surgical masks. A lot of people are wearing surgical masks these days, and it makes communication difficult for the hard of hearing. Almost all of us instinctively supplement our hearing with speechreading. If we can’t read your lips, we can’t understand what you’re saying. There are several varieties of clear surgical masks on the market and some health professionals will wear them on request from a hard of hearing patient, but the majority of masks obscure everything except the eyes. (For more information about see-through masks, click here.)

The six-foot rule. Experts recommend staying at least six feet away from other people in public places. The problem is that many people with hearing loss can’t hear at that distance, especially in a public venue with other conversations going on. A request to step a little closer can result in a brushoff during these paranoid times.

Isolation. People with hearing loss need to stay socially involved. Otherwise their unused hearing deteriorates even further as the brain gets less accustomed to working with sounds. Staying home may seem like a wise move, but it’s good to go out, even if just to wave and say hello to your next door neighbor. Isolation leads to depression. Depression makes it harder to make yourself get up and out. It’s a vicious cycle.  Many members of our New York City Chapter of HLAA come to our monthly meetings at least in part to be with other people. Our next meeting isn’t for four weeks. I hope the virus will have come and gone by then, but if necessary we’ll cancel, reluctantly.

Being older. Youth is no protection against hearing loss, but it is true that the older you get the more severe the loss may become. We see a disproportionate number of older people at hearing-loss events. Unfortunately, these same people, especially if they have other coexisting conditions (coexisting with age, that is) are more vulnerable to coronavirus, not to mention the flu and other conditions that can be deadly in someone with compromised health.

  • What’s the solution?   With no end in sight, people with hearing loss need to come up with workable runarounds. Here are a few. 

Take a walk. Keep your distance from others but get out in the spring sunshine and communicate visually if not aurally.

Have a friend for lunch. One of you is unlikely to infect the other if you both feel well. Make sure guests wash their hands thoroughly the minute they arrive. If they have to take public transportation encourage portable hand sanitizers. I use nitrile gloves on public transit. They are a one-use product and environmentally wasteful, but if you’re going to visit an at-risk older or health-compromised person, the priorities seem clear to me. Wear the gloves, take them off and throw them away when you get there. Then wash your hands. Gloves have the added advantage of keeping you from touching your face: who wants to touch their face with dirty gloves that have been holding onto the subway pole.

Encourage videoconferencing. As an advocate for people with hearing loss, I attend many meetings on issues applicable to people with disabilities. In the past week or two, many have been cancelled but increasingly the organizers are setting up videoconferencing, with CART captioning. The week after next I’m going to be part of a conference in London in which people from many different countries will be attending by video. I’d love to have gone to London but I’m glad not to miss the meeting altogether.

The telephone. For years I avoided the telephone. It was just too difficult. Then captioned phones came on the market. At first I had a captioned phone on my home landline. Manufacturers like Captel and Caption Call offer these phones free to those with documented hearing loss. When I got my Caption Call phone, an installer came to the house to set it up. (You do need wi-fi, so this might be the time to get that as well.) These days, I use my cell phone more often than my captioned landline, thanks to Innocaption+, an iPhone and Android app that lets me receive and make calls (using my own telephone number) with near perfect captioning.

Nothing beats social interaction. But if doing it in person puts you at risk, think creatively about other ways to stay involved with others. These are just a few suggestions. If readers have others, I hope they’ll share. And wash your hands!  


For more about living with hearing loss, read my books, available at and maybe at your favorite bookstore or library. If they’re not there, ask for them.




14 thoughts on “Coronavirus and People with Hearing Loss

  1. Thanks, Katherine, as always, for a great column. Can you devote a column to getting and using Innocaption?

    Also, as the chair for planning my 50th college reunion in May – which may get called off – I have begun talking to my college (university) about hearing support in the rooms where we will be holding sessions. They have nothing built in but are in the midst of an ADA study, and we are now giving them “alumni” input on top of their student/faclty/staff input which tilted to a much younger population. It might be interesting down the road to write about colleges and universities and their hearing support equipment and infrastructure. Also concert halls!

    Being older. Youth is no protection against hearing loss, but it is true that the older you get the more severe the loss may become. We see a disproportionate number of older people at hearing-loss events. Unfortunately, these same people, especially if they have other coexisting conditions (coexisting with age, that is) are more vulnerable to coronavirus, not to mention the flu and other conditions that can be deadly in someone with compromised health.

    Stay well. All the best, Karen ps I thought some of the sessions at the national conference, which I cannot attend, looked interesting. I would be interested in attending sessions like these locally.



    • Thanks Karen. Definitely a column on Innocaption, and I can write one about my own 50th reunion which was last June. The college — Vassar — actually installed hearing loops in a couple of auditoriums. It was great!
      Our chapter meetings are really informative. We have excellent speakers. Please come. Joyce and Max came a few meetings ago so you could talk to them about what they thought. Thanks for two good column ideas.


  2. Thanks, Katherine, for another excellent – and timely – blog! It does seem like many hygiene best practices, given the Coronavirus, are at odds with approaches used by those of us with hearing loss.

    Fortunately, a few months ago I purchased a supply of clear face masks to give to my docs. I’ll accelerate that process now.

    And I will definitely pursue your suggestions to stay connected and communicative.

    Do you have any recommendations for video conference providers using CART? Or resources to understand selection criteria? I volunteer with some groups in DC and we’re canceling/ postponing live events but need an alternative.

    Thanks again.


  3. One way to keep our ears in shape despite Corona induced isolation is audio booking.

    I hated the idea for years. (Why set myself up to not-understand something?) But my new trick is to listen to books I’ve already read and liked. That way if I miss some details I don’t get frustrated or lose the thread of the story.

    Luckily I have a friend who tells me when she finds excellent (interesting!) readers – like when an author reads her own books (Toni Morrison! Barbara Kingsolver!) which lends a quality that I don’t get reading print.

    Stay safe and take good care!


  4. Katherine, your blogs are so well written. Especially this one. You must be the go-to person for hearing loss. You should be anyway. xoLeslie



  5. I haven’t gone on a search yet, but, never having seen a clear mask such as you mention, I wonder where they are obtainable and how easily. Seems to me we could use a supply like that on hand even when no virus is operating, to be able to try to get doctors et al to consider using one when they or their patient may be infectious.

    I do appreciate your column. I hadn’t thought this through for those a little more disabled than I am with hearing loss. In my area, Western North Carolina, we aren’t yet confronted with this issue, or at least it’s not in the open here. But it’s definitely time to prepare.

    I have one question. Do you have any thoughts for those who must travel? I’m considering substituting car for air travel to visit my grandchildren this summer. But would I be able to stay overnight in a camp-ground intended for people using campers and such vehicles? I wonder if you have to reserve space well ahead of time and how much they cost? And would that be safer than staying in a strange hotel? Would it be safe in a different sense for a solo woman?

    But I wonder about other travelers with hearing loss, who face enough difficulties just flying normally. Of course, some of the things you discuss would apply in airports, etc. Any specific advice, other than that this is definitely no time to be shy about our hearing loss? Not only must we admit to it, we need to be able to talk about it enough to ask for needed help. Might this be a time to try to get hearing aid manufacturers to understand that they are not being helpful to most of us with their emphasis on aids “so small no-one will ever notice?” I get told they are just responding to demand, but they are actually contributing to that demand if not creating it, actually enabling the stigma to persist. They are creating the impression that hearing loss is, after all, something to be ashamed of and to hide. Also, hearing aids, small or large, are not so perfect that the loss isn’t noticed by others. It’s just misunderstood, so that people are seen as stupid or ignorant or even mentally disabled. And any help offered is then irrelevant to the real need.

    Ann Karson.


    • Dear Ann, so many important thoughts and questions here! The hearing aid manufacturers — yes, it’s well past the time when they should be assuming that hearing loss is shameful and that hearing aids need to be invisible. We all need to be as outspoken as we can be on this issue.
      As for summer travel, who knows what summer will bring. I have never stayed at a campground so I’m not the person to ask. At this point, even this week, I’d probably get on a plane and get the trip over with if it was for something like going to see my grandchildren. On the other hand, I just canceled a trip to London for a meeting I really wanted to attend because my daughter is getting married and I didn’t want to end up quarantined somewhere. I wasn’t afraid of getting the virus, just of not being able to get home again. So we all have to weigh our personal circumstances. Let’s hope by summer this is all a distant memory. In the meantime, wash your hands!!
      Thank you for commenting on the column. I realized when I first saw people in masks how it would affect the hard of hearing, and then an HLAA colleague told me about asking someone to step closer so she could hear him — and seeing him recoiling like she was Typhoid Mary. I guess that’s not so unreasonable — any one of us could be Typhoid Mary or Typhoid Manny –so we all need to be careful.


  6. I’ve had nightmares lately involving being in the hospital surrounded by mask-wearing people I can’t understand. I realized yesterday that that’s actually the part of this whole anxiety-fest that I find the *most* anxiety-inducing. I’m looking into finally learning ASL, which is something I should have done years ago.


  7. […] Katharine Bouton, an influential hearing-loss-advice author, published a short post pointing to efforts of another company (ClearMask) to come up with a clear-window surgical mask for professionals and patients. Among other things, she is recommending that the Hearing Loss Association of America (HLAA) start advocating for their use. She also posted an extremely helpful longer article on Coronavirus and People with Hearing Loss. […]


    • Thanks for the mention David Copithorne. This is such a fast moving story that I felt I had to take back some of last week’s advice (have a friend for lunch) — but the need for see-through surgical masks is clearly essential. Not only now in the time of crisis, but in the future when things settle back to “normal” whatever that will be.


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