Face masks have become the main defense against coronavirus — a necessity for the foreseeable future. But they are also creating hardships for an estimated 850,000 New Jersey residents: those who need to read lips.
Typically, not even doctors keep clear masks on hand that allow patients to read their lips, advocates said.
Hackensack’s Arlene Romoff, 71, who lost her hearing as an adult, said her cochlear implants are helpful, but she depends on lip-reading, also referred to as speech-reading, for meaningful interactions making face masks a nonstarter.
"When masks cover your face they diminish the volume of the person speaking," said Romoff, who is a member of the Hearing Loss Association of New Jersey and author of "Hear Again: Back to Life with a Cochlear Implant" (Sterling, 2002) and "Listening Closely: A Journey to Bilateral Hearing" (Charlesbridge, 2011). "That makes somebody even with mild hearing loss dysfunctional. The spectrum of mild to moderate to profound— all of those people are affected by somebody wearing a mask. That is enormous."
From shopping for groceries and eating at restaurants to doctor appointments, life has gotten harder since March for the 48 million Americans with hearing loss, according to the Hearing Loss Association of America.
Like Romoff, Jayne Jacobson has adult-onset deafness. Both need people to face them so they can watch lips and other facial cues that — along with the digital input from their cochlear implants — allow them to communicate more like everyone else. Face masks remove a lot of that input.
The gap in communication needs "has never been exposed so dramatically," Romoff said.
"I am the weakest link. If things are not optimal in communication I am going to fall off first," Romoff said. "That’s what’s happening here."
Jacobson, a Ramsey resident, said many with hearing loss are "sticking close to home" these days. Typically she is someone who likes to go out, but the number of problems she’s encountered have been discouraging, like a recent trip to her favorite restaurant, Mahwah Bar and Grill.
When she ventured out after quarantine she was happy to find the tables well spaced apart outdoors "and everything was carefully done."
"I knew I was safe with the food and the distancing, but I couldn’t understand what the waiter was saying," Jacobson said.
When the "courteous" waiter, donning a mask and gloves, came to take her order she realized things were not going to be easy in this post COVID-19 world. She faced the same problem at the supermarket when she needed help finding the rotisserie chicken, and again when she couldn’t understand the store employee giving instructions on how to use her debit card.
"This happens all the time," she said.
It’s more than an inconvenience. Sometimes not being able to communicate can put a person in a danger.
"Imagine a deaf person getting pulled over and the police man says roll down your window. That is why deaf people carry a sign in the window. If you can’t see him you don’t know what he is saying," said Jacobson. "It’s very important for us to be able to see lips."
In a 2018 report to the governor, Paul Aronsohn, ombudsman for individuals with disabilities, estimated 850,000 state residents have some form of hearing loss.
Marvin Schaab, president of the Hearing Loss Association of New Jersey, estimated a higher 1 million people statewide who "are hard of hearing to some degree." His wife, Linda Schaab, who suffers from profound hearing loss, has a number of upcoming appointments with doctors. So he just ordered a box of clear masks that leave a person’s lips visible.
While hospital staff often wear clear face shields, private practices rarely have them on hand, Schaab said. So the couple will be handing out clear masks as they go from doctor to doctor. This way doctors can use them for other patients who rely on lip-reading.
"Can you imagine what would happen if someone didn’t understand a doctor’s instructions?" said Jacobson.
Madison resident Pat Dobbs, who also has cochlear implants, has been selling masks with clear windows for a company called Safe ’N’ Clear for five years. She said it has tripled production since March, but demand has increased 50-fold.
The founder decided to make the masks after going through labor unable to communicate with her doctor, who was wearing a mask that prevented her from lip reading.
"We have a huge influx of orders and we are giving priority to medical professionals and schools," she said.
Customers looking to speed up back orders most often cite visits to doctors and dentists as the reason for their orders.
"People who go to the dentist beg for masks," she said.
Romoff, Jacobson and Dobbs all said face-to-face communication in conjunction with hearing aids is necessary for day-to-day interactions. Remove one of these and a person has to work harder to figure out how to understand the other person, which can lead to stress.
"The difference is huge," said Romoff. "Seeing allows me to communicate from human-to-human instead of really having to work to try to formulate what you are saying."
This article originally appeared on NorthJersey.com: Face masks present a new challenge for people who read lips