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. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Gratitude

I have my curmudgeonly side and I don’t always like being told to see the bright side of things. I enjoy a good wallow in misery. But the misery of the Covid pandemic is sustained and severe. We share funny things to lighten the day – jokes, cartoons, animal videos, kids doing kid things. We watch streaming performances of uplifting cultural events like opera and theater. We go on virtual museum tours. We listen to live streaming of religious services, particularly in this past week when many were celebrating Passover or Easter week.

Last week the Hearing Loss Association of America, #HLAA, offered a free webinar with Michael Harvey, a clinical psychologist in Framingham, Mass. and the author of  Listen with the Heart: Relationships and Hearing Loss and The Odyssey of Hearing Loss: Tales of Triumph.

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Photo by Giftpundits.com on Pexels.com

Dr. Harvey’s talk, titled “Coping with the Coronavirus (Part 2)”, was an interactive seminar on what ” Covid 19 has to Offer Beyond Hardship and Fear.” He began by discussing how some wise people like Nelson Mandela dealt with isolation. He quoted a veteran of the Bataan death march. And he also quoted some of the comments from listeners to Part 1, many of whom had their own wise observations to make.

Much of what we in the hearing loss community have focused on are the disadvantages specific to people with hearing loss: of isolation, of the difficulty of understanding people wearing masks, and so on. Dr. Harvey focused on the positives.

What Dr. Harvey was talking about, however, was a little different. He was asking us to see actual benefits from the experience of living through this pandemic. Some were predictable (though no less valuable for that): more time with family and friends, more time for books and culture. Some mentioned the particular intimacy of video chats and phone calls. One said that – as someone with hearing loss – her (or his) prior experience of isolation was preparation for this more dire isolation: “If the situation becomes more restricting, I’m prepared for it. I’m ahead of the curve.”

I live in New York City and one of the benefits for me is the quiet that has descended on my residential neighborhood. We hear a lot of sirens, but there is no plane or helicopter traffic overhead, very little car noise, not many trucks, no construction. Very few people are out and those who are out are social distancing. So it’s surprisingly peaceful.

At night, at 7 pm, the city opens its windows to cheer for our health care workers with clapping and song and banging pots and pans. In the quiet city, the sound seems to come up out of nowhere. You can’t see many other people, but because there’s no other noise the empty streets and buildings resound with the noise. Many people with hearing loss are sensitive to noise, I know I am. Being in a noisy place is exhausting. But this noise is different.  Make a joyful noise unto the Lord, the Psalm tells us. This is a joyful noise. We’re still here. Thank you, health care workers.

Some are juggling work from home while taking care of young children or supervising the remote-schooling of older kids. Some are taking care of sick or elderly relatives on their own, or worried about finances, or sick with the virus themselves, or grieving losses. And many, of course, are out doing those essential jobs, risking their health for the rest of us. But for many of us, especially people who are older, this is a time without distractions, without the daily activities that used to consume the day: without meetings, commuting, doctors’ appointments, exercising, playing and watching sports, shopping.

“We help ourselves by helping others,” Dr. Harvey said. “If we contribute to the betterment of other people’s lives, it feeds our soul as well.”

We do this by reaching out to friends and family to check on how they are. (Even more so if we reach out to the ones we dread calling for one reason or another.) We do this by sharing our experiences in webinars and Zoom meetings. We do this by observing the rules: by staying indoors, wearing a mask if we have to go out, staying well away from others, washing our hands. One friend of mine made masks by the dozens and distributed them to her neighbors. Others offer to shop for people who can’t go out. Pet adoptions are way up: let’s hope those adopters keep their commitments once the pandemic is over.

And don’t forget the power of a simple thank you. Thank your mail carrier. Thank your garbage collector. Thank the person checking you out at the supermarket. Thank your pharmacist for offering to make a delivery. Thank the bus driver. You can thank them by your actions as well: put your garbage out neatly, clear the junk mail out of your mailbox, have your money ready at the checkout counter so the checker can speed you on your way and shorten his or her own exposure to whatever germs you may be carrying.

If you have other examples of ways we can contribute to the betterment of others’ lives, please share them here. Check out HLAA’s other webinars, including Dr. Harvey’s Coronavirus Part 1.

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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.