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What’s it like to be deaf in a global pandemic?

12 April 2021

6 mins


I was diagnosed with congenital bilateral hearing loss when I was five years old. I have 90% hearing loss on one side and 50% loss on the other. I rely massively on lip reading and facial expression to interpret and understand speech.

This is hard work in normal circumstances, but communicating with people face-to-face and in person during the pandemic when they are wearing face masks and/or standing two metres away is a huge struggle and most of the time impossible.

Not being able to hear and understand what people are saying to me is upsetting and disorientating even in banal social situations like receiving a home shopping delivery. In the grand scheme of things not being able to converse about the weather with a stranger is not a big deal.

What is a big deal is not being able to understand what the chemist is saying to me about my son’s prescription, not being able to do my job because I can’t understand what my colleagues are saying to me, and being in hospital surrounded by mask-wearing strangers and not being able to understand a word.

In pre-Covid circumstances I “masked” my hearing loss very successfully through a variety of proactive coping mechanisms that I have developed over the course of my life to improve my chances of hearing and understanding what has been said and effectively communicate with people.

None of my usual methods work right now.  Not in the office and not in the wider world.

I can’t stand closer to people.

I can’t ask them not to cover their mouth.

I’m not sure it’s possible for you to understand how frightening that is for me.

Employers are required by the Equality Act 2010 to make reasonable adjustments so that deaf people and those with hearing loss are not unfairly disadvantaged in the workplace. I haven’t needed any specific adjustments in my pre-Covid working life, but because of the impact social distancing measures including mask wearing will have on my ability to do my job successfully, I have made a formal request to continue working from home until such time that social distancing and face masks are no longer required.

I’m lucky to have a job that I can do from home. Other Loughborough colleagues with hearing loss and the small but significant number of Loughborough students with a declared hearing loss may not all have this option. There are at least 50,000 children who are deaf in the UK including my 7-year-old. They will be experiencing similar difficulties with in-person communication due to face masks and social distancing.

I spoke to another colleague, Ann Browning, Research Associate in the School of Social Sciences and Humanities, who sustained partial but significant hearing loss in her mid-40s due to post-concussive syndrome and meningitis. While Ann has also been able to work from home, she has found participating in online meetings through Microsoft Teams difficult due to a lack of synchronicity between audio and visual cues. When the video freezes or lags behind the audio, combining limited interpretation of sound whilst simultaneously lip-reading is very challenging. When people speak too quickly or talk over each other, full participation is not possible. One way you can help colleagues is to note key pieces of information in the chat function to ensure that vital information is not missed.

I’ve actually found online meetings easier than in-person meetings in many respects, especially when people are facing the camera directly and speaking clearly into a microphone. I’ve got my laptop plugged into a separate speaker so I can adjust the volume up if needed. I often wished in pre-Covid times that people would come with subtitles, so I’ve found Microsoft Teams automated live captions function to be very helpful (click on the three dots on the meeting task bar and select “turn on live captions”).

Ann and I do find it frustrating when pre-recorded video communications including lectures and training videos are not captioned as it prevents us from fully participating in university life. There are plenty of free auto captioning tools you can use for work and personal use (eg for videos on social media) – see the University of Washington’s helpful guide to creating accessible videos here.

If you are working with a colleague or student who has hearing difficulties, ask them what you can do to help support them. Adjustments might include:

  • Write things down instead – on paper or even on your phone if conversing face-to-face
  • Wear a clear face mask (but be aware that these can steam up and obscure the panel)
  • Have clear rules of engagement for online meetings
  • Provide subtitled video content or transcripts
  • Be aware that this is an issue and be patient.

Amanda Silverwood
Planning Officer

Comment from Miranda Routledge

I am Amanda’s manager. When she submitted her request, it took me about five minutes to read it. And then about 20 minutes to REALLY read it and absorb a tiny bit of what it might feel like to be in her position. It then took me about three seconds to decide what to do about it. Amanda will not be required to come back into the office physically until such time that she can deploy her usual coping mechanisms. That is until face masks and social distancing are no longer required.

That bit was easy. What was more difficult was the realisation that I hadn’t appreciated the extent to which Amanda has successfully masked her hearing loss from myself and other colleagues. Until she wrote to me with the request to continue to work from home, I had no idea how difficult she finds things and I particularly hadn’t considered the very specific impact of the pandemic on her.

I am looking forward to the day when Amanda can return to the office and when she does, I will continue to be mindful of the coping mechanisms that she deploys in the workplace and I am making it a personal mission never again to shout across the office to her, speak to her without facing her or cover my mouth whilst I talk to her.

We wanted to share this with other colleagues to raise awareness of the issues facing deaf staff and students and hopefully help people to find new adjustments that can support them both in the short term during the pandemic and longer-term. 

Equality, Diversity and Inclusion

Reflections, comments, discussion and opinion on EDI topics from Loughborough University staff and students

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