Consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic – Part One

Impact on communication

I was two years old when I was taken to the local doctor’s surgery after my parents noticed that I seemed to ignore them sometimes when they were speaking to me, particularly when I was not looking at them. The hearing test was very simple. I was put in a highchair and a metal tea tray was brought from the kitchen and dropped to the hard surface of the floor behind me. I did not respond.

After hearing tests and inspection of the ears the diagnosis was sensorineural hearing loss, probably resulting from congenital rubella syndrome (CRS). This was before a vaccine was widely available and likely from the rubella epidemic that started in Europe around 1962.

I have high frequency hearing loss and it’s more or less represented by a nearly a straight line from the bass frequencies, where my hearing is normal, all the way to the high frequencies, where I don’t hear anything at all. Below is an audiogram where you can see the range for normal hearing, and my approximate hearing profile that looks like a ski slope. Usually there are two lines; red for the right ear and blue for the left ear. Since the slope is similar in both my ears I am showing it in blue only for simplicity and clarity:

Audiogram with an approximation of my hearing profile in blue

This would be my ideal profile:

This is an ideal hearing profile

Due to physics hearing aids can’t boost audio to ideal levels, so with hearing aids my profile is something like this:

An approximation of my hearing profile with hearing aids

What these audiograms tell us is that hearing aids are a compromise, particularly for people with severe hearing loss, but they make an essential difference in my life. My hearing loss is considered to be slight to moderate so I am extremely lucky, but it ain’t easy sometimes, especially in noisy environments.

As an aside; the rubella pandemic in the early to late 1960s led to many specialist schools being set up across the country to cope with the problems caused by the disease. I went to one after the headmaster at my local junior school told my parents I was dim, even though the teachers knew I had a hearing problem. I don’t blame the school, they simply didn’t have the training to deal with it. My parents knew better because I was able to hold my own in conversations at the dinner table, I was able to read on my own, my mother read to my brothers and I most nights and I understood every word she spoke (I have fond memories of the “Just William” books by Richmal Crompton who, I have just discovered, was a female writer!). I also sang songs from the movie Oliver! However, I would often ask someone to repeat the jokes while watching variety shows on TV, or David Allen, or Les Dawson (I had no need of explanation for his musical jokes). My parents were always very patient with me. Of course that is not a problem now with subtitles that are now widely available.

After the vaccine was finally made available to the general population the incidence of rubella fell rapidly. When I started at the specialist school there were around 120 pupils of mixed sex from the ages of 6 to 16. I started there when I was 7 years old and left at age 15 (an advantage of having a birthday in August). I went to a couple of reunions, the last time in the mid to late 80s. I was surprised to see that there were only secondary school aged kids (11 to 16 years old) when I found out there simply weren’t enough kids below that age to “come up through the ranks”. The vaccine was doing its job and now the school no longer exists. How cool is that?

I digress.

Do you notice that it’s easier to understand what someone is saying when you can see their face than listening to a disembodied voice? That watching a newscaster on TV is easier than listening to one on the radio? It makes a big difference to me, especially, as mentioned, in noisy environments. And I do like to party.

Fast forward to 2020. I’m in Spain, there’s a pandemic, and everyone’s wearing masks. I already have difficulty understanding what people are saying because of their accents and now I can’t read their lips! It’s a challenge but I can manage it, mostly by making jokes about it and smiling a lot (with my eyes), but for some people it can be very frustrating and stressful. So here are some tips. They apply in all circumstances, not just when masks are being worn.

  • Look directly at the person you are speaking to. Eye contact is important.
  • Speak slowly (not too slowly!) and clearly.
  • Wait or ask for a response before moving on to the next sentence or topic. Make sure the listener understands what you have said. Giving a lecture is no good if you rattle it off and they didn’t understand what you are talking about from the start.
  • DO NOT SHOUT. Shouting distorts your face thereby making it even harder to read, and because deafness is never even across all frequencies it can be painful, especially if you shout directly into the ear, which you should never do.
  • Use your hands to indicate as much as possible what you are saying, point to things, mime actions.
  • Try saying the same thing in a different way. Rephrasing can give more information.

That’s it for part one. More about consequences soon. It’s time for a nice cold beer.

Stay safe!