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Overcoming communication challenges during COVID-19

Marissa Russell, MS, CF-SLP | Mar 25, 2021 | Traumatic brain injury, Stroke, Aphasia, Communication disorders

It is no secret that COVID-19 brought forth a range of new challenges. Everyone adapted to quarantining, wearing masks, and social distancing, all to help prevent the spread of the virus. But these protective measures made an impact in more ways than one. When it comes to interpersonal connection, now is a time when many feel isolated from their loved ones. Even when gathering responsibly, standing six or more feet apart with face coverings can pose significant communication challenges, especially for those with hearing loss and communication disorders. 

How do mask-wearing and social distancing pose communication challenges?

When attempting to engage in conversation during COVID-19, wearing face masks and standing far apart can impact your ability to relay and interpret messages in a range of ways:

  • Muffled sound: Masks can dampen sound and reduce overall speech volume, which makes it more difficult to understand what others are saying.
  • Lack of visual information: While most may not realize it, we all use facial expressions and lip-reading to help us understand what we hear. This information is especially important for individuals with hearing loss and/or communication difficulties. These added cues help with the interpretation of spoken language. Because masks cover half of our face, facial expressions and lip movements are either difficult or impossible to see. Especially at a distance, this can have a negative impact on communication.
  • Difficulty speaking: Similar to having a conversation in a loud, crowded room, wearing masks and standing far apart often requires people to exaggerate their mouth movements and increase their speaking volume in order to be understood. Adapting speech in this way may be especially difficult for individuals with communication disorders such as aphasia, apraxia, and voice disorders.
  • Distractions: It is common to experience difficulties with attention after a stroke or brain injury. This makes it tough to ignore distractions, like loud or visually ‘busy’ environments. Standing six feet apart creates more space for distracting visuals and sounds (e.g. people walking by, loud music, or side conversations). These things make it difficult to focus on what someone is saying.

The above factors make communication challenging for anyone. And they are especially difficult for those with hearing loss or cognitive-communication disorders.

Use these tips to improve communication during COVID-19

Since the beginning of COVID-19, many adapted the way they communicate in order to maintain social connection with one another. For example, high fives turned into elbow bumps, and other creative techniques have emerged as well. Consider some of these tips to help improve communication during the pandemic: 

Setting

  • Move to a quiet space: Not only will this make it easier for you to hear your conversation partner, it will also help limit external distractions that could negatively impact your communication.

Body Language

  • Face each other: Making sure that you are turned to face your conversation partner can support your ability to hear one another and pick up on nonverbal communication such as gestures.
  • Use gestures: Gestures are a useful type of nonverbal communication that are fortunately unaffected by masks. Use hand movements and body language to help others understand you.

Speech

  • Speak up: Talking louder will make it easier for others to understand you, even while wearing a mask and standing at a distance.
  • Speak slowly: Slowing your rate of speech will give others more time to process your message. This is especially important when people cannot use facial expressions and lip-reading to help interpret what you are saying.

Additional Supports

  • Write things down: Writing down key words and drawing pictures can help you get your message across when communication breakdowns occur.
  • Use speech-to-text: Speech-to-text apps use voice recognition to transcribe text in real-time. This provides “captions” for the listener and allows them to read what is being said. See resources below for lists of popular speech-to-text apps for iOS and Android. 
  • Consider other types of masks: It is important to follow CDC guidelines related to mask use. However, there are many alternatives to regular cloth or surgical masks that are more accessible for those with communication difficulties. Consider high-quality masks that have a clear panel over the lips. This CDC-approved option allows others (especially those with hearing loss or communication disorders) to read lips for improved communication.

Marissa is a practicing speech-language pathologist clinical fellow serving English and Spanish-speaking patients at Northeast Rehabilitation Hospital. She is also a Clinical and Scientific Consultant for Constant Therapy Health, where she is involved in content development, advisement on product features, and other app-related clinical support.

References and Further Resources:

American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA): “Communicating Effectively While Wearing Masks and Social Distancing: www.asha.org/public/communicating-effectively-while-wearing-masks-and-physical-distancing/.

“Speech-to-text apps for the deaf community” by Linda A. Goldstein: https://www.hearinglikeme.com/speech-to-text-apps-for-the-deaf-community/

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