Communicating in the Age of Covid: An Unexpected Benefit

There aren’t many bright spots when it comes to Covid 19. The death toll is enormous, the financial impact is potentially catastrophic, the fear of what lies ahead can be overwhelming. Still, for many with hearing loss, this period offers an insight into what it’s like to have equal access to spoken communication.

Many of us “manage” our hearing loss as best we can, through hearing aids and cochlear implants, through assistive listening devices, through speech reading and attention to communication strategies. I have a cochlear implant and a hearing aid. As grateful as I am for their superior technology, they’re not enough for me to participate fully in the hearing world. I employ these various devices and strategies with somewhat limited success.

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Giving a reading in Seattle. Behind me you can see CART captions projected on a screen.

But in the age of Covid, the playing field has been leveled. It is often said that we hear with our brains. It’s equally true that we hear with our eyes.

As an advocate for people with hearing loss, I attend a lot of meetings. Most have to do with disability access and most offer live CART captions as well as accommodations for other disabilities. I’m able to keep up fairly well, although the effort of reading captions during an in-person meeting gets exhausting.

These days, however, all our meetings are virtual, and many of them are captioned. See below for instructions for getting captions.  With a Zoom meeting or Google Meet or any other captioned forum, an extra element is added that makes all the difference for me. These apps allow the speaker’s face to be isolated on the screen. (Click on the icon on the upper right of the app’s screen and then choose “Speaker View.”) That means that in addition to hearing the voice and reading the captions it’s very easy to read lips as well.

A good CART captioner makes the captions seem to synchronize with the spoken word. With my ears alone (plus hearing aid and cochlear implant) I miss a lot. With CART captions, the speaker’s voice actually sounds clearer and easier to understand. Am I hearing the words or am I reading them? I often can’t tell.

Add the visual element of the speaker facing you on the screen, and you’ve got triple input. Researchers call this multiple the McGurk effect, named after one of the British scientists who discovered in the 1970s that people comprehend speech better if they hear it in multiple ways. The scientists called it “hearing lips and seeing voices.” That’s why we need to see the speaker’s face clearly. A friend of mine likes to say, “Don’t speak till you see the whites of my eyes.” That is, she needs to see your lips in order to hear your voice. Adding captions to eyes and ears is an important third element. In a live gathering, adding hearing assistance in the form of a hearing loop is another way of improving the hearing experience through multiple inputs.

FaceTime also turns out to be an invaluable tool, although it doesn’t use captions. I always thought FaceTime was basically for fun, for talking to your grandkids or your boyfriend. But the McGurk effect applies here too. FaceTime isolates the speaker’s face close up.  This vastly enhances the ability to speech read. So, just as with good CART captioning, if I’m on a FaceTime call, I’m not sure if I’m hearing the speaker or reading lips. The input from eyes and ears are inextricably entwined.

In this time of social distancing, masks, self-quarantine, living apart from one another – we may feel isolated. I did at first, and I wrote about it in my column Coronavirus Concerns for People with Hearing Loss. It’s not just the disease. (As we learned more, I updated that column: I Take It All Back.)

But as I’ve become more comfortable with technology, everything’s changed. Eyes, ears and brain working in sync make me feel more connected than ever.

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To access Zoom captions: The person who initiates the meeting can either hire a CART operator to provide live captioning or can offer automatic voice recognition captions (which are generally less accurate). You, the guest at the meeting, click on “Closed Captions” on the very bottom of the Zoom screen. The captions will run just above that. You can adjust the caption size by clicking on CC and scrolling down. Sometimes “chat” interferes with the captions. If that’s happening, click on “chat” and the box with chat messages will appear on the right. You can move your whole screen to the right to get them out of sight. I know this sounds complicated but once you try it, it gets easier.

For more on the kinds of technology that are useful for people with hearing loss, especially now, the websites of both the Hearing Loss Association of America and the Center for Hearing and Communication offer good tutorials, including webinars.

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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.

Here’s a link to my most recent book: Smart Hearing: Strategies, Skills and Resources for Living Better with Hearing Loss.