You're in the middle of a videoconference with six coworkers when something on the agenda hits a nerve and everyone begins talking over each other in an effort to be heard. Or perhaps your team leader turns her back to the web camera, and her voice becomes muffled as she talks her way through a presentation.
People working remotely will likely tell you videoconferencing apps such as Zoom, Skype and Google Hangouts are the perfect lifelines to continuing business as usual during the coronavirus outbreak. But workers with hearing loss find that, while videoconferencing is an improvement over old-fashioned audio-only conference calls, it's far from ideal.
"Poor internet speed is the primary issue [during videoconferencing] because it causes frequent lapses in sound quality,” says John S. Oghalai, M.D., professor of otolaryngology and chair of the Tina and Rick Caruso Department of Otolaryngology — Head and Neck Surgery at the University of Southern California.
That's not all. “The video often doesn't synchronize with the audio, so many of the subtle aspects related to lipreading and facial micro-expressions are lost,” Oghalai notes. He adds that while some people might not realize how much they rely on visual cues, “everybody develops these skills naturally during the development of hearing loss.”
Communicating With a Face Mask
Trying to understand someone whose nose and mouth are covered can be tough when you rely on visual cues for comprehension. “Try to glean as much visual information as you can from the squint of their eyes and the furrows in their brow,” suggests USC's Oghalai. “For those with mild to moderate hearing loss, high-quality hearing aids with directional microphones and noise-blocking algorithms can be very helpful, as well.”
See our story on how to prevent your mask from interfering with your hearing aid.
Reading these cues can increase understanding of speech up to 20 percent, even for someone who's had no formal training in lipreading, according to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA).
There are several tips that can help improve comprehension during virtual meetings. Before the videoconference, adjust your surroundings. Find a quiet room with good lighting. “For those with teenagers in the house, get them to turn off their video games, live group chats and movie watching when you have a critical videoconference meeting to attend,” says Oghalai. “Internet speed increases dramatically when they shut down.”