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USF audiologists hope to bridge communication gap with new face masks

Jaymi Butler

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Clear face masks

Communication has always been a bit of a challenge for Patricia Carr, an audiologist at the University of South Florida’s Hearing Clinic who is also hearing impaired.

With masks now being required at indoor businesses in St. Petersburg and Tampa, Carr and others with hearing impairments are dealing with the loss of one of their most valuable tools for nonverbal communication – facial expressions. 

Patricia Carr

Patricia Carr

“We rely on a person’s facial expressions when communicating, whether you have normal hearing or hearing loss, to put meaning to what is being said,” said Carr, who also teaches a course for doctoral students studying audiology. “When masks are being worn, we miss out on the personality each person brings to the conversation. Just hearing the words is not enough.” 

Carr and her fellow audiologists and interpreters at USF are working to bridge the communication gap by using masks that feature a clear plastic window instead of fabric around the mouth. They’re hopeful these masks will help improve the quality of conversations between them and their patients.

“Imagine trying to hear through a mask with hearing loss,” said Devon Weist, audiology clinical instructor in the USF College of Behavioral and Community Sciences and director of the USF Hearing Clinic. “Effective communication becomes extremely difficult and sometimes impossible.”

In addition to blocking facial expressions, masks can muffle sound by as much as 12 decibels, Weist said. Combining the two issues can lead to frustration by both the speaker and the listener.

Tami Stone, who recently received a cochlear implant, agrees.

“Without the ability to see the mouth and lip movements of a speaker, we cannot “hear” what is being said,” Stone observed.

As advocates for the hearing impaired are calling for the increased use of clear masks, and businesses from large health supply manufacturers to small Etsy shops are producing them, Stone is hopeful they’ll become more commonplace.

“It would be wonderful if workers in the customer service industry, such as cashiers, who speak in person to clients daily, could have similar masks that permit a customer or client to see the mouth and lips of the speaker,” she said.

Pinellas County set a new single-day record for COVID-19 cases Friday, with 266 positive tests. Next week, The Pinellas County Board of County Commissioners is expected to consider requiring face coverings be worn inside some businesses and limiting the number of people in restaurants and bars.

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