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Face Masks and the Importance of Communication

23 Apr 2020 13:20 | SIE News (Administrator)

We’re delighted to bring you this guest blog post from Susan Griffiths, ASD Occupational Therapy Lead for an NHS Foundation Trust, and SIE member and Advanced Sensory Integration Practitioner:

“There are 12 million people with hearing loss across the UK – that is 1 in 6 of us (data obtained from Action on Learning). I am one of those people. I am a hearing aid user and lip reader and I rely on both to be able to communicate effectively with people, especially in my role as an Occupational Therapist and Advanced Sensory Integration Practitioner.

As a deaf person and as an OT, I have always been aware of the impact the environment has on our disability. My SI training has further increased my awareness and understanding of how our environment can support or inhibit our sensory needs. If we do not get the environment right then our environment can be a significant barrier to everyday participation.

At the beginning of April 2020, one single change to the environment has made me more disabled than I have ever been in my life – the introduction of face masks! I could no longer use my lip reading skills to help me discriminate between different sounds and words to ensure that I interpret what I hear accurately. I had seriously underestimated how much I rely on lip reading until that ability was taken away from me.

This pandemic has really highlighted the lack of deaf awareness in our society. Why has it taken a pandemic to realise that face masks are a significant communication barrier, not just for the hearing loss population, but also for people with dementia, learning disabilities, and the very young children.

The UK government is not currently advising most people to wear masks, but this could change if the scientific advisers recommend it. The impact of more people wearing masks on our ability to engage in everyday activities once lockdown is relaxed, such as shopping, meeting friends for coffee, and attending therapy appointments, will be devastating!

The single flaw in the design of face masks is the fact that they are not see-through. On Twitter, an American college student generated a lot of interest after she shared a homemade clear mask that she made. However, this is only beneficial if it is recognised that every single mask needs to be a see-through mask, throughout society. In addition, for see-through masks to be used in health environments, they have to be economical and meet stringent standards to ensure they are safe and offer protection from viruses.

The reality is that this is not going to happen, at least not now during the pandemic when face masks and other PPE equipment are scarce. However, I do hope that in the future this is something that we can learn from and hope that see-through face masks become the norm.

As Sensory Integration Practitioners, what can you do to help?

  • Check with your family, friends, colleagues and clients who are lip readers and ask them how they prefer to be supported.
  • If you work with clients, ensure there is a plan in place on how you are going to communicate with them, especially if the removal of masks or see-through masks is not an option.
  • Use gestures and sign language. If you don’t know how to use sign language, now is the time to learn. Many of the online BSL courses are offered free during this pandemic so make the most of this opportunity.
  • Write things down using pen and paper. If you are working on the wards, then use a mini white board which is easy to clean. Alternatively, text or type to your patient using your phone, tablet or computer.
  • Use communication apps that convert speech to text such as Google Live Transcribe, Otter, or Live Caption. For BSL users, use the ‘Now Interpreter’ app where you can video call a BSL interpreter for free.
  • Use video calls. If you work on the wards, then go to a room where you can safely remove your mask and then talk to the patient via video calls. If possible, use video conferencing apps with live captions function, for example, Microsoft Teams or Google Hangouts Meet. This means that automatic transcribed closed captions (also known as subtitles) will appear on the screen as people talk. If live captions are not an option, then please be mindful that the quality of video calls can vary and sometimes the sound and the speaker’s mouth movements are not in sync. This makes it harder to interpret what we hear and see.
  • For people that can use their residual hearing, ensure the environment is quiet, speak loudly and clearly. Please be aware that this requires increased cognitive listening effort which can quickly lead to tiredness and even exhaustion.
  • Finally, but most importantly, please continue to raise awareness of the communication barriers that face masks pose for the people who rely on reading facial expressions and lips to support their communication.

Written by:  Susan Griffiths @SusanGriffiths5

Date: 23/04/2020

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