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Charity calls on nation to implement communication tips so face covers don’t isolate people with deafness and hearing loss

14 May 2020

Action on Hearing Loss, the leading UK charity for those affected by deafness or hearing loss, has stated face covers will have a huge effect on the millions of people in the UK who are deaf or have hearing loss as it will be a communication barrier that will result in many feeling even more isolated and scared at an already difficult time and have designed some communication tips to help.

Many people who are deaf or have hearing loss rely heavily on visual cues for effective communication including facial expressions and lip-reading. Being able to see lip patterns and facial expressions is also vital for those who communicate through British Sign Language. Words which sound similar but have different meanings become very difficult to distinguish. This can lead to a breakdown in communication.

In response to the new Government advice that people should wear face coverings and improvised masks in enclosed public spaces Roger Wicks, Director of Policy and Campaigns at Action on Hearing Loss has said:

“The move to advise people to wear face coverings will create new challenges for the twelve million people across the UK who have some form of hearing loss. Many of these people will rely on lipreading to communicate and this will be unavoidably impeded by face coverings. This has the potential to create further isolation amongst an already marginalised community of people. 

“Too often people living with deafness and hearing loss find that society isn’t deaf aware. For people with hearing loss to be able to go about their daily lives it is now even more important that everyone, especially those providing frontline services to the public, considers how they communicate with each other to be as inclusive as possible. Where facemasks are worn and lipreading isn’t possible then people can still following a number of simple communication tips:  speaking clearly and slowly whilst using plain language, using assistive devices such as hearing loops and microphones and reducing the amount of background noise such as piped music. If this still proves difficult then people should be prepared to write information down for those with hearing loss.”    

As well as having to overcome barriers with public face coverings people living with deafness and hearing loss are also having to overcome communication problems in health and social care setting, either as patients or staff, where a requirement for formal PPE creates further barriers. Action on Hearing Loss is aware of some masks with a clear window to enable lipreading, which are manufactured in the US. These masks, however, do not provide sufficient protection from fluid droplets, so they wouldn’t be appropriate for professionals to wear in most health and social care settings currently. They are also currently unavailable in the UK. The charity is talking to the government to find out whether an alternative viable solution can be found for use in health and social care settings. Though the current difficulties presented by PPE must not prevent health and social care providers from meeting their legal duties under the Equality Act to provide accessible information – we have produced advice for health and social care professionals to help them to do this.

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Notes to editors

Action on Hearing Loss (formerly RNID) is the national charity helping people living with deafness, tinnitus and hearing loss to live the life they choose. Action on Hearing Loss enables them to take control of their lives and remove the barriers in their way, giving people support and care, developing technology and treatments, and campaigning for equality.