Dr. Kelly Talks Masks & Communication With KPTV

Wearing masks is an important part of the world’s new normal, but it can get in the way of communication — especially for those with hearing loss. Just ask Hearing Center of Portland’s own Dr. Katherine Kelly, who described some of the challenges in a recent interview with Oregon’s FOX 12.

“A simple medical mask reduces speech about three to four decibels, and then if you’re wearing a thicker mask or one that’s similar to an N95, that can reduce up to 12 decibels, which is actually a lot,” shared Dr. Kelly, an audiologist with extensive experience in diagnostic audiology and hearing aids.

Add in social distancing — another crucial precaution in today’s times — and you can see how understanding speech can become pretty tough — even if you aren’t among the approximately one out of five people with hearing loss in the U.S.

Masks not only muffle sound but can also get in the way of other communication aids. Lipreading, for example, is pretty impossible if the mask obscures the speaker’s mouth. In addition, masks can make it tough to:

  • Perceive the tone and inflection in someone’s voice
  • Recognize and interpret facial expressions

What to do? When it comes to hearing loss and masks, one helpful step is to use protective face coverings with clear plastic around the mouth area. This makes lipreading much easier. Dr. Kelly also suggested that people face each other when speaking, limit distractions and background noise, and rephrase rather than repeat if the other person didn’t catch what was said.

Hearing Loss & Masks

Whether you’re trying to follow a conversation or you’re the speaker trying to be understood, hearing loss and masks can be a challenging combination. Here are a few additional quick tips for improved communication:

  • As Dr. Kelly advised, opt whenever possible for protective masks that have a transparent panel over the mouth area.
  • Speak slowly, taking the time and care to clearly articulate words and allow a bit of space between them.
  • Make eye contact when conversing, helping ensure each party is contributing their full attention to the conversation.
  • Seek help from a licensed hearing care professional if having listening difficulties, which can often be effectively managed with hearing technology.
  • If already using hearing aids, ask your provider to help personalize them with settings for mask situations, and consider hearing-aid-compatible accessories such as remote microphones.

Masks will likely be a part of everyday life for some time, making Dr. Kelly’s advice all the more pertinent. Check out the full FOX 12 news segment featuring Dr. Kelly on hearing loss and masks here.