Face masks are essential if we are to prevent the spread of coronavirus, but they are causing problems for those who are deaf and hard of hearing and who therefore rely on non-verbal cues and lip reading to communicate.
One thing is not up for debate, and that's how essential it is to wear a face mask. Recently, director of the CDC Robert Redfield said (opens in new tab) that “if we could get everybody to wear a mask right now I think in four, six, eight weeks we could bring this epidemic under control.” So the question becomes, how do we make face masks more accessible for those who rely on lip reading? Well, paramedic Danny Hughes recently took to Twitter with his own solution.
For patients who rely on lip reading to communicate, Hughes has found that face masks are a barrier. To try and combat this, the paramedic uses Google Live Transcribe, an app which transcribes speech in near-real time using large, easy-to-read text, to communicate with hard of hearing patients.
Communicating with patients who lipread whilst wearing a mask.. I hope you find this useful! 🙂😷🚑 #Communication #Inclusion #PatientCare #Paramedic @Google #LiveTranscribeApp #COVID19 #TeamSECAmb pic.twitter.com/DC6Ima2KtwJuly 17, 2020
One review (opens in new tab) of the Live Transcribe app says, "I'm deaf, and this app has become immeasurably important to me with the current Covid-19 situation. I rely on lipreading as my main mode of communication, and masks make that impossible. The app installs easily and the speed it translates speech is almost instant. I love that it has options for text size and saving the transcriptions as well as various other options."
However, there are a few limitations with this method. First off, it won't work on all smartphones (opens in new tab). Apple has a variety of transcribe apps on its App Store, but Google Live Transcribe isn't one of them - it's exclusive to Google Play. That means your Android phone will run the app, but you'll need to find an alternative if you have an iPhone. Another limitation is that you'll need to use a WiFi connection, or your smartphone data, for this option to work, but that's to be expected with most apps.
You can download the app here (opens in new tab), and transcription is available through Google Translate.
What are the other options?
Charities for the deaf and hard of hearing, such as Action on Hearing Loss (opens in new tab), have been calling for an increased awareness around the communication issues caused by face masks, emphasizing in The Guardian (opens in new tab) that "with more than 70% of people over 70 having hearing loss, many people admitted to hospital with coronavirus may experience difficulties in communication."
They welcome the development of transparent masks, with a panel cutout that allows people to see each-others mouths while talking, without the risk of not wearing a face mask.
The issue is complicated, and different for every person who experiences hearing loss. The best hearing aids (opens in new tab) don't work for everyone, and neither will this app, but it's certainly a good option for those struggling to communicate in day-to-day environments.
If you haven't invested in a face mask yet, here's where to buy reusable fabric face masks (opens in new tab), or read our homemade face masks (opens in new tab) guide to learn how to make your own in accordance with CDC guidelines.