There is no shortage of options when it comes to how your mask is decorated – polka dots, dinosaurs, stripes, and mascots are all available. And let’s be honest, we all have one friend whose super-stylish mask we absolutely covet.
For individuals with hearing loss, however, mask selection is a much more practical decision (though not devoid of style). Most masks will muffle human speech, at least a little. So those with hearing loss are thankful for masks that enable clear communication.
The problem is each mask seems to have its own benefits and drawbacks. That’s why researchers at the University of Illinois tested each mask type scientifically. Through their study, it was discovered that ordinary, disposable surgical masks are best suited for the hearing impaired.
Masks and hearing loss
Hearing loss can make communication challenging. Even before COVID-19 and lockdown orders, hearing loss had a tendency to push people toward isolation. When it’s difficult to communicate (when you ask friends to repeat themselves over and over again, for example), it becomes easier to remain isolated. Incidentally, avoiding isolation is one of the most important reasons to treat hearing loss.
Since the pandemic, masks have been widely used, and while they’re a life-saving necessity from a public health standpoint, mask-wearing introduces specific challenges for those experiencing hearing loss. That’s because masks tend to block specific types of sound waves.
The frequencies most often blocked by masks tend to be the ones individuals with hearing loss frequently have trouble discerning. This obviously creates communication problems, but there are health implications, too. The last thing anyone wants is to be tempted to remove a mask to improve the clarity of a conversation.
Clever entrepreneurs have spent the last few months developing all kinds of solutions, but there was very little research. Until now.
The benefits of surgical masks
After conducting a scientific study, researchers at the University of Illinois discovered that ordinary surgical masks disrupted sounds least often. This makes the surgical mask the perfect choice for anyone who is experiencing hearing loss (or anyone who is going to be interacting with someone suffering from hearing loss). That might be surprising, given the preponderance of other mask options available.
Researchers were quite thorough, however, and tested masks in a variety of ways. Here’s what they found:
- Disposable surgical masks were the clear winners. They recorded the best transmission of sound (with the exception of loosely woven cotton masks, which are a poor choice due to their lack of protection from the spread of germs).
- Surgical masks are also relatively inexpensive. That makes them easy to procure for both clinics and individuals (not to mention retailers and other businesses).
- There were some masks that performed better when it came to lip reading. For example, fancy, transparent masks did provide a significant amount of visual cues, but they also blocked almost all of the sound. For most people, some sound is better than no sound.
It’s important to keep in mind that disposable surgical masks are designed to be just that – disposable. That means you won’t be able to keep wearing the same mask repeatedly without specially treating it. In general, that’s okay. Masks aren’t as challenging to come by as they were during the first months of the pandemic.
Widespread adoption of masks
If you’re experiencing hearing loss, it makes sense for you to wear a surgical mask. However, it’s worth noting that widespread adoption of surgical masks among the general population would be more beneficial to those with hearing loss. This is especially true for venues more likely to serve individuals with hearing loss, such as hearing specialists or hearing aid retailers.
In essence, it’s more important that the speaker wears a mask than the listener. Since you never know when you’ll be engaging with someone experiencing hearing loss, common usage is the best way to facilitate clear communication with everyone.
Finding solutions for the hearing impaired
Clear communication might sound like a trivial concern, especially when weighed against the medical costs associated with COVID-19, but it can be achieved while still adhering to mask-wearing compliance. When communication falters, individuals might be tempted to take off their masks, and that’s precisely what we all should be trying to avoid.
So if you know someone who is experiencing hearing loss, you should make an effort to wear a surgical mask, instead of your homemade mask, the next time you see this person. Researchers found that layers of loosely woven cotton (which is how surgical masks are manufactured) offer the best protection while also allowing clear communication. If you can’t find a disposable surgical mask, use the next best thing at your disposal.
When you make an effort to ensure clear communication, everyone will be safer. You’ll also still be able to choose your favorite design (I’d go with dinosaurs, personally).