Communicating in the Time of COVID-19

Going to the hospital or doctor’s office can be a source of worry and anxiety as a deaf or hard of hearing (DHH) individual, now it becomes exponentially more stressful. COVID-19 has brought about a slew of challenges for the DHH community, and healthcare is one of them. From the advised six feet of distance between any two people, to the prevalence of people wearing masks, and of course overwhelmed hospitals, we recognize the struggles a DHH person would face if infected. In this article, we’ve outlined some basics to prepare and included links for more resources. We sincerely hope that you will all be well, but also strongly advise taking necessary steps!

Preparedness: The Basics

This video by the Hearing Loss Association of America has some good resources and ideas to prepare for a hospital visit.

Hospitals and COVID-19

While the video above outlines good practice for a hospital stay in normal circumstances, hospitals are experiencing an increase of patients in response to COVID-19 and are taking extra precautions to protect both staff and patients. Many of these extra precautions, however, can become barriers in communication if not addressed.

Barriers to Communication

Masks and other protective gear are an essential tool for healthcare workers at during this pandemic. However, for DHH individuals who rely, even in part, on lip-reading to communicate masks present a barrier to effective communication. According to a study conducted by The Hearing Review this month:

Each type of medical mask in this study essentially functioned as a low-pass acoustic filter for speech, attenuating the high frequencies (2000-7000 Hz) spoken by the wearer by 3 to 4 dB for a simple medical mask and close to 12 dB for the N95 masks. This means the speech quality degradation, in combination with room noise/reverberation and the absence of visual cues, renders speech close to unintelligible for many patients with hearing loss.”. 

This means that even if a DHH individual does not rely on lip reading, the amount of audible sound is also diminished.

While normally hospitals can provide interpreting services, transparent masks, written communication or captioning services, this may not be possible at facilities which find themselves overwhelmed. Additionally, many facilities are not allowing any family members and even interpreters into hospitals to try to limit exposure and spread of the virus. This could mean people who may help you advocate normally, will not be able to be there with you. What can you do to prepare for all of these new restrictions?

First we suggest downloading and testing out speech-to-text applications available on your phone or tablet. In addition to the apps in our previous post, here’s a more in depth list to consider. Remember, it’s essential that you also test the apps to make sure they are effective for your communication needs!

Second, use communication strategies you use every day and remind doctors and nurses to use them too.

  • Make sure people are facing you when they’re talking and distractions are minimized.
  • Ask people to speak slowly, but not to overemphasize or exaggerate speech.
  • Use your hearing aids, cochlear implant or pocket talker to help aid your hearing.
  • Ask that a sign be placed on your door, above your bed or on your intake bracelet that indicates to nurses and doctors that you are deaf or hard of hearing
  • Ask for interpretation services, clear masks and assistive listening devices if available.
  • If you cannot understand what is being said, ask for it to be written down so you can ensure you understand what information is being given to you.

Looking for a small way to make a big difference for the DHH Community? This amazing student from Kentucky is making clear masks for hospitals! Read her story here.

Emergency Bag

This all can be extremely overwhelming, but the best thing you can do is be prepared! Here’s a short list of items you should have ready should you need to go to the hospital.

  • Medical Placard/Bracelet/Page stating you are deaf or hard of hearing. Example here
    Assistive Listening Devices such as hearing aids, pocket talkers, or cochlear implant
  • Extra supplies such as batteries, chargers, wax guards, domes and cases to store your devices with your name and contact number clearly labeled if misplaced
  • Plug and charger for your phone or tablet and any rechargeable batteries
  • Glasses or a magnifying glass to help you read any captioning service, phone or written messages that might be presented to you
  • Emergency contact form and advanced directive
  • Pens and paper
  • Wifi Hotspot in case the hospital has poor WiFi connection

Remember, if the hospital staff refuses to talk with you or respect your wishes, you can demand an “ethics consultation.” You can also contact for help.


Additional Resources

Communication in the Emergency Department PDF

How Do I Communicate with Doctors, Nurses and Staff at the Hospital During COVID-19?




Return to Top