Masks cause difficulties for students who are hard-of-hearing

Masks have added another barrier for communication between students and professors this semester. Photo by Ben Caylor.


From muffled sounds to mixed-up consonants, masks have created several challenges for the interpretation of words. Speaking with others while following COVID-19 precautions has caused difficulties for many people, but it has especially caused new challenges for those who suffer from hearing and speaking difficulties.  

Tonya Bergeson, an associate professor in the communication sciences and disorders department, explained why it can be difficult to communicate with masks.

“Masks make it a little harder to breathe, and it’s the air that is producing the actual speech,” Bergeson said. “Regular masks also limit your mouth movement. Cloth masks filter out higher frequencies of speech, and these are really important for certain consonants.”

Bergeson noticed some difficulties COVID-19 precautions have caused in the classroom experience as well. 

Hands-on training and clinicals are a big part of the student experience in the CSD department, thus the program has had to make alterations and come up with safety plans to continue their work. 

CSD students at Butler have the opportunity to learn about their field through the speech and language clinic, a service where students are able to provide speech therapy for people in the Indianapolis community.

“The speech and language clinic is completely online this semester… the technical glitches have been frustrating,” Bergeson said. “The safety plan [for in-person clinics] is to use a face shield. The client needs to see the face, because wearing masks in some of those situations may not work as well.”

Bergeson said that the online therapies have been highly effective. They have provided accessibility to more people, and Bergeson thinks online therapies are going to become increasingly popular in the near future. 

The CSD department is also facing challenges within the classrooms. Bergeson said that when students answer questions in her class, she would occasionally look at the wrong person because she cannot see the student’s lips moving.  

She also said that she sometimes has difficulty with hearing her students who are in the back of the classroom. Her classroom has enough space for her to move closer to those students while maintaining a six-foot distance, so she will often walk around her classroom to better hear her students. 

Bergeson also uses a lapel microphone to help her students hear her better, and she advises other faculty to use a microphone as well to help save their voices. Since faculty members typically speak the most in classroom settings, she recommends that they be careful about overusing their voices and that they should take vocal breaks.

Wearing masks in the classroom affects the students as well. Sophomore CSD major Lexi Schell described some of the methods her professors have been implementing to help combat the challenges presented by wearing masks.

“In my in-person class, my professor opted to wear the [clear facial] shield, rather than a mask, because we are [learning] about really specific types of speech errors such as slurs… It is really important for us to learn the [mouth] shapes of symbols,” Schell said.

While this has helped her in her classes, Schell said she has some difficulties speaking with her peers in their regular masks.

“There are miscommunications here and there, and sometimes I give up trying to say what I meant because it is so difficult to get a message across,” Schell said. “I definitely have more of a soft-spoken voice, so I have to speak up or send a text if someone cannot hear me.” 

Over the summer, Schell also shadowed a speech pathologist who works with children over Zoom. The speech pathologist adapted to the COVID-19 measures through teletherapy, or virtual appointments. So, she would meet with her clients over Zoom instead of in the classroom or her home.   

“The kids are typically aged anywhere from seven to 10,” Schell said. “It can be difficult for them to keep an attention span, especially if they have been doing classes online all day through school. So I think one of the biggest difficulties with this is really connecting on that personal level through technology.”

Schell said that technology can cause other barriers, such as a scratchier sound. For example, if a child is working on pronouncing the letter “s,” it can be difficult to pick up the sound through technology. The letter “r,” on the other hand, is more about where the tongue is positioned. Schell said that this situation is more difficult to work on because they are not in-person, rather than the sound quality of technology. 

Hanna Russel, a disability specialist in the Student Disability Services, said that there have also been a few beneficial changes due to COVID-19 for people with hearing loss.

“Individuals have said that Zoom has been helpful: they are able to adjust the volume, they are able to put headphones in, and they are able to be in a quiet space,” Russel said. “It really depends on the person and the hearing loss.”

Russel said that the percentage of students at Butler University who struggle with hearing loss has been growing over the last couple of years. She said that in SDS, staff members will work with professors and students on an individual basis to best accommodate their needs. 

One way students and professors can be an ally for people with hearing loss is to wear a clear mask. Russel said this can help students with hearing loss read lips. 

Russel said that there have been challenges with the clear masks fogging up after people spoke for long periods of time. However, this can be combated by cleaning the masks with Dawn dish soap.

Another way to be an ally to people with hearing loss can be by using applications with the person who has hearing loss. One example is Google Voice. 

“They could have an application on their phone to transcribe the conversation and you can communicate that way,” Russel said. “Definitely talk to the person who has hearing loss to get their take.”

Emma Gifford, a sophomore majoring in political science, history, and peace and conflict studies, is a student who wears hearing aids. She agrees with Russel’s suggestion of speaking with the person who has hearing loss to hear their opinion.

“If you do know someone who has a difficult time hearing, just ask them what works best, because my story does not speak for everyone who has a hearing disability,” Gifford said.

Gifford has dealt with hearing difficulties for her entire life, so she is used to repeating things people say in her head, pausing after someone talks and piecing together information. However, she said that speaking with people with masks is definitely different.

“I would say it is easier if I have met the person before,” Gifford said. “That way I could pick up on their speech patterns, their voice, that sort of thing. If I haven’t met the person it can be a little more difficult to understand them because I am not used to them.”

Gifford said she has been able to do a little bit of lip reading through the mask by looking at how the mask will move. She notices things like with the chin jumping or the person’s mouth moving in tighter masks. However, she said it does require more concentration.

“There’s also people that would mumble, so it can be hard to pick up on what they’re saying with the mask,” Gifford said. “As long as you speak clearly and a little bit louder, it helps. But I can usually figure out what they are saying.”

In her classes, Gifford generally sits near the front so she can hear her professors better. Her professors also help make sure that she can hear her peers’ contributions to classroom discussion. 

“It is a little difficult sometimes to hear people talking in the back of the classroom,” Gifford said. “So professors will often repeat or summarize their comments.”

Gifford said that there are several ways that allies can improve their communication with someone who has hearing difficulties. She encourages others to talk slower, more clearly, a little bit louder and to try not to mumble.


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