Creating a voice for the Disability Sector
Creating a voice for the Disability Sector
Face masks for people with hearing difficulties

Face masks for people with hearing difficulties

27 January 2022


As a mother of an (adult) child with hearing loss, I understand the frustration of the need to wear face masks and at the same time be able to lip read.

Our son had learned to lip read and position himself in the classroom so his “good” ear was facing the teacher at all times, long before we realised he had difficulties hearing.

Even though he is deaf in one ear and refused to wear his hearing aid from about age 12 onwards (just not “cool” apparently) he still relies heavily on lip reading. And he’s good at it.

The ability to read lips and facial expressions can mean the difference between persevering with a conversation, or class lesson, or just giving up.

So, with one-in-six Australians diagnosed with hearing loss, imagine how much harder it is for them to follow a conversation when everyone is wearing masks! And it’s not just lip-reading that suffers.

Mandatory face masks are just as essential as hand sanitiser when it comes to arming ourselves against COVID-19, but they make life impossible for those who are hard of hearing.

James Coleman, writing for RIOTACT, says people with hearing loss rely on facial expressions and clear speech when interacting with others, and a patch of cloth across the mouth of a speaker robs them of this ability.

Depending on the type of face mask, studies have shown they can reduce the clarity of speech and lower the volume between five and 15 decibels. Speech is not only quieter when wearing a mask, but also more muffled, he writes.

The mask straps also interfere with devices such as hearing aids, which sit behind the user’s ears.

Add in social distancing requirements, and ACT Deafness Resource Centre CEO Glenn Vermeulen says the deaf and hearing-impaired community face another layer of difficulty when coping with the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It’s an issue that came up when governments were suggesting the use of face masks,” he says.

“At the time, advocacy groups such as the Deafness Forum of Australia stood up and said, ‘Look, you can’t expect people who rely on lip reading to communicate with people wearing a mask’.”

However, some states and territories have granted face mask exemptions for people with hearing difficulties, including Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland.

The Victorian Department of Health and Human services has advised an exemption for wearing a mask if removing it is necessary when communicating with deaf or hard of hearing people.

Exemptions include:

  • Persons who have a physical or mental health condition, or disability, which makes wearing a face covering unsuitable, including persons with obstructed breathing, a serious skin condition of the face, an intellectual disability, a mental health condition or persons who have experienced trauma.
  • Persons communicating with those who are deaf or hard of hearing and visibility of the mouth is essential for communication.
  • Persons for whom the nature of their work or education means that wearing a face mask creates a risk to health and safety.
  • Persons for whom the nature of their work or education means that clear enunciation or visibility of their mouth is essential. This includes teaching, lecturing or broadcasting.

In New South Wales, exemptions include:

  • If you cannot wear a face mask because of a disability, illness, or condition, you must carry either:
  • A medical certificate or letter signed by a registered health practitioner (such as a doctor) or a registered NDIS provider, or,
  • A statutory declaration.

A statutory declaration will require you to identify your disability, illness, or condition, and declare:

  • You have the illness, condition, or disability, and,
  • The illness, condition, or disability makes wearing a fitted face covering unsuitable.

Queensland’s exemptions include:

  • Where visibility of the mouth is essential
  • Where a mask needs to be removed to clearly communicate
  • A person with a particular medical condition or disability
  • Performing work where clear visibility of the mouth is required, e.g. a speech therapist in a hospital or healthcare setting.
  • A resident of a residential aged care facility or a shared disability accommodation service (This is subject to any policies or requirements of a facility or service)

There are also suitable face masks available online that have a clear window over the mouth to allow lip reading. A simple Google search will show you where you can buy them in Australia.

Please refer to your state’s latest face mask mandate exemptions for up-to-date information on face mask wearing and other COVID-19 protocols.

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