[This is a repost that contains new information on surgical masks.]
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, although 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 Amazon.com and maybe at your favorite bookstore or library. If they’re not there, ask for them.