Behind the mask – say what?

By Judith Slater

I wear hearing aids, purple ones. The colour has varied over the past 35 years. My hearing loss was “mild” when I was five, “moderate” when I was 20, but “profound “ (no sound, only vibration) by the time I was 30. Not a game-changer for the most part, as I’d become quite adept at lip reading over the years. Lip reading was especially useful in the classroom, where I worked as an education assistant and teacher. Surgery on both ears (stapedectomy) 15 years ago moved me up to a “moderately severe” hearing loss. I was already deemed “high-functioning,” as I always used my aid and word discrimination was still awesome, so I was the “poster woman” for adapting to hearing loss.

In March 2020, the pandemic changed everything. Mandatory use of masks everywhere immediately impeded me from understanding even the most basic communication. Not only were those vital lips gone, but facial expressions were hidden. Adding a plastic face shield to that, and it just left me feeling quite helpless and stupid. I couldn”t understand what was being said. With masks in schools, I could no longer teach.

New rules abounded everywhere. My casual weekly grocery shop morphed into a tense affair once every three weeks. I caught on quickly. Being told by a masked, pointing person, “Snargle frumip yarple soint,” I took it to mean I had to seek which cash desk was free so I could go to that one (and not look stupid). Some used fingers for numbers – that always got a thumbs up from me! Aha – visual cues!

On one shopping trip, for three weeks of food, five of my 15 cans of cat food were removed at the checkout by a woman who looked frustrated behind her mask and plastic shield. I got really upset because I couldn’t understand as the cashier adamantly insisted, “Ype scrubmy donk blag!” She finally pointed to a sign which read, “Limit of 10 of each item.” Great, thinks I, my cat is going on a diet! She was 21 years old and weighed about six pounds. Signage! Great, at least I can read!

In October 2020, news came that Mum and Dad weren’t doing well in England. They probably had COVID; it turned out Dad had COVID, pneumonia and a kidney infection! Given I wasn’t working, I volunteered to fly over – was I crazy? – to sort things out. Armed with my six months of experience in this new world, I set off with masks and a face shield with a strip of painters’ tape at the top on which I’d written, “Hard of Hearing.” I’d learned to ask closed questions that required a Yes/No response. I knew it was going to be difficult, but I felt like a crazed, recess-deprived, six-year-old child when I went through my first security check. Anticipating shoe/boot removal, I said, “Do you need me to remove my shoes? Yes or no?” The security person, looking at the ground, replied: “Hyepers fmrenyt akjkajdlkja.” “Okay, I didn’t understand that as I’m hard of hearing,” I said, pointing to my shield. “Do you need me to remove my shoes? Yes or no?” Reply: “Hyepers . . .” I just raised my shoes, rested them on the counter and loudly repeated, “YES OR NO?” My next stop was duty-free!

My three and a half months in England were full of medical events, dealing with overdue, missed or cancelled appointments. Dad recovered but needed full-time care, so he went to a care home. I stayed with Mum. She and I were allowed weekly visits with Dad, initially seeing through a window, then in a fancy, glass-partioned shed with dodgy microphones. Imagine three hearing-aid users trying to communicate – it was as daft as a box of frogs in spring! The batteries in Dad’s aids would often be dead. Since Mum turns the TV volume to 77, hers were obviously hopeless. At the next weekly visit, I came armed with cake, coffee and, most importantly, white boards and markers! Wow! What a difference! Upon my return to Canada, I had gained 10 pounds.

Getting back home in February 2021, I was still unable to teach and had to decide what paid employment would work for me in this new world. What’s Judith doing now? I hope to have answers in a future article.

Judith Slater is a former Glebe resident, now just around the corner in the Golden Triangle. She loves being outside where she can talk and listen clearly to all the wonderful things you have to say!

For hard-of-hearing people in a masked world, a white board and marker are lifesavers!   Photo: Judith Slater
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