How masks affect communication during COVID-19

[Image Description: Photo of a woman in a grey shirt wearing a blue mask with a black background.]

In the time of COVID-19, masks have become the new normal in much of the world. Although they help prevent the spread of the virus, masks can make communication difficult for those who rely on facial expressions, visual cues, or lipreading.

Reduced communication with masks

Speaking through a mask can muffle sound by as much as 10-12 decibels, or about a 30% volume reduction.

Masks also block facial expressions. For many people, expressions are helpful for general communication – but for people with conditions such as Alzheimer’s or autism spectrum disorder, they are essential for verbal communication. 

Facial expressions are also an important element in sign language, which is spoken by millions around the globe. Expressions can modify or change the signs of the hands. And beyond sign language, many deaf and hard-of-hearing people also rely on some level of lipreading to understand spoken language – something that is not possible with opaque face coverings. 

Clear masks

Thankfully, face masks with clear plastic windows that allow mouths to be seen are increasingly available. You can purchase clear masks and wear them to help with communication during these already challenging and frustrating times. You can also learn how to make your own.

Helpful tips while communicating

Many other ways allow more effective communication while wearing a mask. Here are some helpful tips (that can be useful even when not wearing a mask):

  • Always face the person you are talking to
  • Make sure your face can be seen in good lighting
  • Focus on eye contact
  • Use expressive facial cues and body language
  • Avoid walking side by side to ensure better visibility
  • Speak slightly more slowly and enunciate with occasional pauses
  • Be prepared to write things down/type on a phone app to avoid communication errors
  • Try to have conversations with minimal background noises (birds, traffic, television, etc.)
  • Check if the person with whom you’re communicating understands what you’re saying 
  • Ask if there is anything you can do to communicate more clearly 

Other helpful tools

People with mental health conditions, intellectual and developmental disabilities, or sensory sensitivities can find it difficult to wear a mask on their faces for long periods of time. Some individuals can’t wear masks because of pre-existing breathing problems or high activity sports. For them, clear face shields can be helpful but do not fully protect from the virus.

Neosensory Buzz helping communication during Covid-19

Buzz, the wearable haptic wristband that detects sound around you and translates it into patterns of vibration felt on your wrist, can assist with communication in many environments. 

If you depend on facial expressions in the era of masks, Buzz alerts you to verbal cues you cannot see behind the cloth. 

“Knowing when people are talking to you through their mask is a win,” reports one Buzz user. Hearing people take normal social cues for granted, like seeing someone start to speak or knowing if someone is trying to get their attention when lips cannot be seen.

Buzz users report they can feel the pitch and emotion of people talking, which is especially valuable when facial expressions are blocked by masks. 

What’s your biggest Covid-19 communication challenge? 

Everyone faces new challenges during Covid-19 and quarantine. What has been your experience? If you use Buzz, how has Buzz improved communication for you? How have you used Buzz during quarantine? 

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