Hear me out

This International Week of the Deaf gives Lauren Webb cause to share some of the challenges that Covid-19 has brought to those suffering from hearing loss

There are around 12 million people in the UK living with some form of hearing loss – yet, despite having worn bilateral hearing aids since the age of two, I don’t regularly give it a lot of thought.

Well, I didn’t until Covid-19, in any case. This International Week of the Deaf gives me time to pause and reflect upon the impact of the virus on my communication ability over the past 18 months or so. I realise that I’ve had to effectively re-learn everything that I instinctively knew about communication, from basic interaction to coping strategies.

My situation could be worse – thankfully, I’m Covid-free and I can hear adequately thanks to powerful hearing aids. Nor am I reliant on British Sign Language (BSL). Perhaps that’s lucky as the UK Government’s failure to include a BSL interpreter in some of the pandemic briefings has been the subject of much criticism. The Where Is The Interpreter campaign succeeded in securing a judicial review on 16th June 2021. It’s particularly timely, given that the theme for this International Week of the Deaf 2021 is Sign Language Rights for All.

Video interaction

But I have still struggled. Pivoting to remote working in March 2020 saw everyday interaction replaced by video. In normal times, communication for me is enriched by the facial nuances and social cues of face-to-face conversation, which form a safety net catching those quieter instances that naturally elude me. As Bladonmore’s HR Manager, I rely on face-to-face contact to do my job, whether this is meeting new people, having conversations with individuals or groups of colleagues, or generally looking after everyone who works here.

The first fortnight of the pandemic saw me trying to replicate that in a remote setting with varying degrees of success. The first few weeks were taxing as global providers of videoconferencing platforms scrambled to cope with unprecedented surges in demand, and our own teams got to grips with home Wi-Fi. Cameras sometimes had to be left off during calls, and it became the norm for a colleague to be cut off unexpectedly in mid-sentence. Working life got easier for me as the platforms stabilised, Wi-Fi began to cope better, and colleagues were increasingly able to leave cameras on for meetings.

Social distancing, the two-metre rule and face masks then turned my everyday interactions with the outside world into challenges. Most people wore masks in public places, and if I was not squinting to lip-read from a distance, the other person was bellowing to be heard. This left me feeling by turns isolated, embarrassed, and utterly exhausted from the extra effort of simply trying to hear.

Gauge the mood

It is said that all humans rely to some degree on seeing the face to aid communication. I know that the ability to ‘read’ another person’s face gives you your biggest agency: you look at another person’s mouth to lip-read, or at their eyes to gauge mood, or the other parts of their face that just by moving provide vital cues to help you fully understand what is being said. When that agency is taken away, the psychological effect is like putting a blindfold on and being told to cross a busy road as if you could see.

In response to the broader challenges in the communication landscape, nine UK charities, including the National Deaf Children’s Society, have advocated for the use of transparent face masks to help with communication. This has seen some success: the NHS made 250,000 of these masks available for healthcare professionals in the second half of 2020 and in 2021; some organisations made them available via their websites, and crowdfunding is underway to help companies produce more of them and respond to the design challenge of producing transparent masks that do not pose a risk to the listener.

These are positive steps forward, but they are not an immediate resolution. The charity SignHealth stated earlier this year that one in three deaf people have reported struggling with their mental health due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Over 60% of this number cited anxiety as having the biggest impact on them. I cannot adequately convey the blanketing sense of isolation that descends when you are out in the world among others, yet everyone has covered a third of their face. Or the waves of embarrassment in the supermarket when there is a queue steadily forming behind you, and you must ask the cashier to repeat themselves for the third or fourth time. Such pressures have been eased recently by mask obligations lifting in many settings, but they still have a big presence in many daily activities, such as commuting, and will do so for some time going forward.

Opening up

So, what have I taken away from a year-and-a-half of living through COVID? I have found that considering each situation on its own merits helps to calibrate my response, rather than applying a blanket approach to all. After a lifetime of being incredibly private about the day-to-day issues that I face, I have found it helpful to simply be open about them. Whether this generic – telling someone to take their hand away from their mouth on a Teams video call, or literally pointing out my hearing aids in a shop, my newfound openness enables others to support me in the right way. And I am fortunate to have incredibly empathetic and understanding colleagues who have met and supported my individual new normal’ with aplomb. All of this has helped me navigate the pandemic – and cope better as a result.

What can others take away from this? Firstly, an acknowledgement that spending over a year in obligatory face masks provides a stark reminder that humans need some degree of the non-verbal signals that complement communication: eye contact, facial expressions, hand gestures, body movement and posture to name a few. Secondly, an increased awareness that certain issues are not immediately visible. And finally, greater patience and increased empathy towards those who may be experiencing those issues to different degrees.

International Week of the Deaf runs from September 21st to 25th, 2021. More information on the event can be found at: https://wfdeaf.org/iwdeaf2021/ 

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