Wearing face coverings has become part of our essential duty as the battle with coronavirus rages on, but reporter Hilary Scott discovered the challenges they pose for the hearing impaired in our community.

THE health of the public is of paramount importance, so if we’re told to wear face masks, we do.

However, since their mandatory introduction on public transport, in cafés, restaurants and supermarkets, I began to realise how much harder it is to communicate.

I have, on more than one occasion, uttered: “Sorry I didn’t hear that, what did you say?” only to receive a reply and embarrassingly have to ask them to repeat the question again.

Fortunately, I have no hearing impairment, but it did make me conscious of the daily battle for deaf people amid this ‘new normal’.

And, as I discovered, it is a problem which has the potential to create further isolation amongst an already marginalised community of people.

I spoke with Peebles-based lip-reading tutor, Clare Wildsmith, who has significant hearing loss.

She told me of the experiences she and others with hearing impairment have experienced since COVID-19 swooped in, forcing us to mask-up the facial expressions which help us to understand people.

When lockdown was announced in March, Clare combined her skills as a lip-reading tutor and digital skills trainer to keep those with hearing loss connected.

She said: “Face-to-face communication suddenly halted.

“For those of us confident with our gadgets, we turned to our mobile phones and computing technology, with all their applications to text, chat, message, and that speedy word, Zoom, with an entirely new function.

“But for those who can’t hear well over the telephone and are not gadget conscious, it became very hard.”

With continued funding from Scottish Borders Council, Clare ran digital support over the summer from home, to enable people to access services and connect with friends and family.

But the major problems for those with hearing loss are being experienced beyond their homes.

The advent of this pandemic has created big changes, and as we all heaved a sigh of relief at the easing of the lockdown, pulled our face masks on and ventured out into our new normal, the lives of deaf people got much harder.

“Our local businesses now have installed their Perspex screens, yet these may be situated such that they are very reflective and all visual clues become invisible,” Clare said.

“This has been the case in some banks and post offices for many years. Face masks are now presenting a real physical barrier to our communication.”

Recalling her first venture out to a local hotel restaurant, Clare told me: “I ordered a coffee and was asked a question by a thick black mask – one spawned by Darth Vader – you know the ones.

“They are the worst because you can’t even see the jaw movement for any speech. 

“After trying a third time, I asked the staff member to write it down because I hadn’t a clue as to the question.

‘Sugar?’ she wrote. Simple as that.

“We had a bit of a giggle, but this all took time and effort and the queue was building behind me.” 

She added: “I know of someone who asked for four scotch pies in the butcher’s.

“Head down, the server asked something. With just a nod back, having not appreciated a question was being asked, this person arrived home to enjoy four steak pies instead.”

Clare says she has had limited success when encouraging businesses to fully use their hearing aid loop systems.

She said: “In Costa, even pre-COVID, I repeatedly asked for the loop to be properly sited.

“Their problems are now exacerbated with their large Perspex screens containing the coffee machine’s din and reverberating the cacophony back to the staff’s senses. 

“Ordering my coffee, the barista didn’t say any- thing but just picked up a dish of sugar sachets and offered it to me – perfect! No voice needed.

“I chatted to the manager and with so many coffees to choose from, how it must be a nightmare for staff. One gentleman brings in his own infra-red pointer to choose his. I like it.”

But during these challenging times, how can businesses and staff aid people with hearing loss?

Clare replied: “It would be ideal for everyone to wear clear coverings because we all lip-read to some extent, relying on facial expressions and visual cues for effective communication.

“More and more people now begin to appreciate what it might be like to be hard of hearing; words can now sound muffled to lots of people.

“That’s because important consonants don’t travel as far as the stronger vowels, yet carry more information.

“Getting closer helps to put your voice above any noise, but that’s not something we can do at the moment.”

Although masks are a barrier for coronavirus, they pose a hurdle for deaf people, but Clare says there is a way to overcome this.

“We’d also like to see governments across the UK taking action to make clear face masks widely available, as they would remove some of the barriers to communication.

“There are clear face masks out there. I know they can steam up, but a little washing-up liquid or Vaseline rubbed on minimises that.

“Also, with any shop now having screens, usually opposite the window or door, all you see is reflection.

“Thank you to The Orange Grove in Peebles who had the wonderful patience to let me explain my problem and to realise that their screen is mounted on an adjustable trolley, so a wee angled tweak and the issue was solved.

“The general trick is to stand directly in front of the staff member so that they fall in your shadow, or ask the speaker to shift left or right if needs be.”

However, the screens can also be advantageous, says Clare.

“Knowing that anticipation is key when we go to certain places, we think ahead to potential questions that might be asked.

“If the member of staff can question with positive intonation, this can be so much easier to interpret and much more welcoming; short and to the point can help clarity.

“Perhaps a store card can be mounted on the screens – the Tesco/Nectar/Asda/BPme High Five card, etc – and printing core information in a large clear font so that the advisor can indicate the question asked.”

Meanwhile, for people whose only human socially distanced contact is buying their groceries, Clare says she is sad to see the continued emphasis on getting us to go to the self-checkout.

She explained: “Please can we fight to keep staff on main checkouts, especially now. 

“With decreased communication overall, being pushed into another non-contact situation is very isolating and heightens anxiety for many people. Good customer service can be priceless.”

She added: “A decent display of the till so that the customer can see the cost so that we don’t have to rely on just trying to hear but have visual confirmation is really helpful.  “None of us are stupid, we just need as much clarity as possible – especially now!

“I am encouraging people to let others know if they have a hearing loss. It’s invisible so we need to make others aware.

“A family member wore her clear mask out to a well-known branded shop.

“A young employee was at the front door to direct customers.

“He saw the mask and commented how much easier it was to see her mouth, even a little steamed up.

“Turns out he was hard of hearing and was eager to know where he might get a similar mask as it made it so much easier for him.”

Clare says that “small adjustments” can make the world of difference as we all adapt to this new way of life.

“Learning to finger spell even the first letter of a core word would be a massive aid to help everyone understand.

“Perhaps we could all make a concerted effort to learn this visual method of communication; if businesses encourage all staff to learn the British finger spelling alphabet.

“Local schools can get involved too, to help communication and learn an extra skill.

“Finger spelling cards are available online. If all businesses could display a printout by their tills we can help improve communication and awareness for everyone.”

Everywhere we go people are wearing face coverings; some basic disposable, others something a bit trendier, colourful and patterned.

But, after speaking to Clare, I now realise that face masks with windows mean more than smiles to deaf people.