Addressing Challenges Students With Hearing Loss May Face During Pandemic

July 24, 2020 | By NACE Staff

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The challenges that students with hearing loss may face during their career explorations and job searches may be exacerbated during this pandemic, with requirements for wearing masks and physically distancing.

The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) has identified these issues and provides guidance for overcoming them. ASHA has compiled resources in response to its members’ needs during the COVID-19 pandemic, including resources that might be helpful for career services practitioners working with college students and URR professionals recruiting them. For example, ASHA recommends using clear face masks during in-person interactions.

“When students with hearing loss require an in-person meeting, having clear masks available so that the student has access to visual cues during your communication will be very helpful,” says Paul K. Farrell, Au.D., CCC-A, associate director, ASHA audiology practices.

The recommended use of clear face masks is a practice ASHA recently promoted to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which recommends the use of face masks and solid cloth coverings to limit the spread of viral pathogens. ASHA points out that while necessary to contain COVID-19, face mask usage can pose significant everyday challenges for people with communication disorders, potentially impacting their health, safety, and quality of life.

At least 46 million people in the United States have a hearing or other communication disorder, underscoring this as a pressing public health issue, ASHA notes. In its letter to the CDC in early June, the association urged the CDC to revise its recommendations to emphasize the need for clear face masks and the use of other communication aids as resources that should be widely available. The CDC has since modified its guidelines on “Considerations for Wearing Cloth Face Coverings” to include clear face coverings under the “Feasibility and Adaptation” section.

Wearing cloth masks, which has become the new normal in most states, can cause a breakdown in communication and can negatively affect communication by:

  • Increasing difficulty in understanding speech—Masks attenuate sound by 3–12 dB and also result in low-pass filtering of high-frequency sounds, making it more difficult to understand speech and some higher-pitched voices (Goldin et al., 2020). Listening to masked speech can be especially hard for people with hearing loss.
  • Reducing discrimination of speech signal among competing noise—For example, reduced discrimination may occur in the presence of traffic or noisy yard work, like lawn mowing.
  • Reducing intelligibility of the wearer’s speech—Listeners may perceive speech as muffled or lower in volume.
  • Losing visual cues—Masks remove the ability to speech read and see facial expressions, which augment communication.
  • Increasing difficulty of verbal communication—Speaking and understanding language while wearing a mask can be hard for people with communication problems like aphasia, voice problems, and autism.
  • Reducing ability to provide appropriate cues to the client/student—Masks can reduce one’s ability to provide communication cues—for example, in the case of speech sound production.

“Students who are deaf or hard of hearing may rely on visual cues to be able to better understand what is said and also clue in on the speaker’s emotions,” says Regina E. Zappi, Au.D., CCC-A, associate director, ASHA audiology practices.

While ASHA recommends using a clear face mask for face-to-face interactions during the pandemic, the association provides the following tips to bolster communication while wearing any type of mask:

  • Make sure you have the attention of your client/student before you start talking.
  • Face them directly, and make sure nothing is blocking your view.
  • Speak slowly and slightly louder, but don’t shout or exaggerate your speech.
  • Optimize hearing—confirm that those who use hearing aids or cochlear implants are wearing their devices or use a portable amplifier. Use your eyes, hands, and body language to add information to your speech.
  • Provide visual references (e.g., printouts, notes, images) to accompany communication.
  • Ask if they understood you. If they didn’t, rephrase it or write it down.
  • Ask them to repeat important information to see whether they understood what you said.
  • Reduce competing noise in the environment, if possible.
  • If you’re talking with someone new, ask the person what you can do to make communication easier for both of you.

The pandemic has also created and increased opportunities to use virtual communication platforms like Zoom, Skype, and FaceTime that allow full access to facial cues, clearer voice quality, and use of interpreter services. ASHA offers several suggestions that may be helpful when using virtual platforms with students who have hearing loss:

  • Make time for introductions—Start each meeting with a few minutes of general conversation. This allows people to share information and updates with one another, unrelated to the meeting agenda, before focusing on the specific meeting topic. This can give people with hearing loss a few minutes to make sure they can hear everyone appropriately and make any necessary adjustments to their equipment.
  • Use video—Whenever possible, use a virtual meeting platform that allows for the use of a webcam, and encourage all participants to use the webcam option. The availability of visual cues for people with hearing loss, and even those without hearing loss, aids in understanding conversation.
  • Check lighting—Participate on video calls in a room with good lighting. When using a webcam, it is best to have lighting in front of you rather than behind you. If all of a room’s lighting (electronic or natural) is projected from behind a person and toward a webcam, it makes their facial features difficult to see, hampering others’ ability to use visual cues.
  • Keep your mouth unobstructed—Try to keep hands, hair, and clothing away from your mouth and face. Project when speaking so that listeners have the best opportunity to hear and understand.
  • Use the mute button—When you aren’t speaking, keep your microphone muted. When multiple people are participating in an online meeting, the collective of background noise from each participant’s home as well as sounds of typing, eating, and so forth, can be highly disruptive.
  • Wait your turn—Do not interrupt others as it is harder to shift listening from one speaker to the next in a virtual meeting. When it is your turn, strive to be as concise as possible and then allow the conversation to shift to the next person in line. Waiting your turn ensures that everyone has an equal opportunity to express their thoughts without having to try to talk over another person.

“Consider using real-time captioning during video conferencing, interpreter services, and hearing assistive technologies to ensure that students with hearing loss have full access to your communication encounter,” Dr. Zappi says.

“It is important to determine which type of access a student needs in order to communicate effectively virtually.” 

During classroom instruction, which may include presentations by career services staff and/or recruiters, FM systems may be used to provide students with hearing loss and wearing hearing aids, direct access to the information through a microphone worn by the presenter that goes directly into the student’s hearing devices. Depending on the student’s communication needs, an FM system may be supplemented with an interpreter or captioning.

“If students are being seated further from each other in the classroom in order to physically distance, it will become harder to hear the teacher,” Dr. Zappi points out.

“A sound field FM system will benefit all the students in the classroom and will help the [presenter conserve his or her] voice.” 

Other strategies ASHA offers for effectively working with students with hearing loss in a classroom setting include:

  • Considering a consultation with an educational audiologist—Educational audiologists are very knowledgeable in classroom acoustics. If you are looking at ways to safely arrange your classroom to protect against the virus, but want to foster good communication, the educational audiologist can assist with that. Educational audiologists can also help determine what type of equipment a student may need to access the curriculum virtually. ASHA’s ProFind tool can help you find an audiologist in your area.
  • Being consistent—If you are switching from in-person classes to online classes, make sure that the student has the equipment or service they need to access the curriculum. If the student had an interpreter in person, the student should also have access to an interpreter online.

“Also, check in with the student,” Dr. Farrell continues.

“If you are switching between on-campus and virtual classes, make sure to check in with the student to see if the new way of learning is working for them. They may need some extra help.”