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Phone Communication in the Pandemic: A Surprising Impact

April 15, 2024
Amy Sarow, AuD, CCC-A
Written by
Amy Sarow, AuD, CCC-A
Amy Sarow, AuD, CCC-A

Dr. Amy Sarow is a practicing clinical audiologist and serves as Audiology Lead for Soundly. Her expertise and experience span topics including tinnitus, cochlear implants, hearing aid technology, and hearing testing. She holds a doctoral degree in audiology from the University of Iowa. During her residency at Mayo Clinic, Dr. Sarow was inspired by the three-tiered, patient-centered approach, incorporating clinical work, teaching and research.

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If you're like most people, March 2020 is a time that is etched in your memory. The country and the world shutdown seemingly overnight, changing our daily routines along with it. As an audiologist, I witnessed firsthand a unique surge in hearing-health-related inquiries that had a common thread: the shift to Zoom and mobile communication as the predominant means of interaction, along with the frustration it brings.  

Within the hearing impaired community, the seismic shift the pandemic caused in phone communication is a story without a headline. Fortunately, for anyone who struggled to understand mask-wearing conversation partners behind plexiglass, phone communication can help bring clarity thanks to caption technology.

In this article, we'll explore how the pandemic upended traditional communication methods, the unique challenges people faced, tips to telephone more easily, and how captioning technology can bridge the gap.

The Unseen Communication Uproar

The onset of the pandemic brought an overnight change in communication dynamics. More than ever, phone conversations were lifelines to the world outside our homes, connecting us to loved ones, colleagues, and services that we could no longer interact with face-to-face. For the broader population, this transition was marked by a noticeable increase in phone usage, but for those with hearing impairments, the repercussions were profound. 

In-office interactions and visual cues were replaced by virtual meetings and calls. The inability to decipher speech from masked faces plunged many who rely on visual cues into isolation within their own homes, families, and social circles. What seemed to be a necessary and temporary shift in communication quickly became the norm, leaving many grappling with how to stay connected effectively. 

Mobile phones moved from being a convenient tool to an indispensable necessity overnight. They were no longer just for casual check-ins or quick updates; they became the primary platform for business negotiations, emotional support from faraway friends, and access to remote healthcare services. This shift was seismic, to say the least. 

But for anyone with hearing loss, this shift was not just about adapting to a new behavior; it was about finding a way to participate in a change that was inherently inaccessible. The tiny screens that held the keys to interactive existence for many were also the barriers that obscured connection. I saw my patients' frustration firsthand as they faced the challenge of participating in phone-based conversation.

Audibility Challenges Add to Frustration

The pandemic brought unique challenges to phone communication. Hushed voices over conference calls, audio lags, intrusive background sounds, and the dreaded 'can you hear me now?' became familiar phrases, representing a digital dialect that the hearing impaired were often excluded from. The lack of clarity and audibility posed substantial barriers to productive communication, leading to an unfortunate increase in feelings of alienation and helplessness among for the struggling end listener. 

Dialing Into the Dilemma 

When it comes to telephone calls, the audio signal you hear is different from an in-person conversation. With the compressed frequency range that comes through the phone, the brain helps fill in some of the audio signal to make sense of what's coming through.  

Add in some hearing loss, and you can see why that creates a challenge. And let's not overlook the pivotal role of visual cues; our conversation partner's face and eye contact tells us about the tone of the conversation and can also help us with the visual reinforcement of lipreading. Take that away, and it's no wonder phone conversations can turn into a round of charades minus the excitement. Imagine leaning into a call only to encounter muffled dialogue, straining with all your might to catch what the person is saying. 

Seemingly straightforward conversations about appointments, grocery items, or simply catching up with a friend became monumental tasks, testing the resilience (and patience) of many people involved. While the pandemic and the year of shutdowns are behind us, there is a technology that can help.

Caption Phones as a Solution

We don't have the superpower to halt the world's uncertainties or magically ward off future global health crises. However, when it comes to understanding phone conversations— now there's something we can enhance. 

Caption phone service is a game-changer for those with hearing difficulties. It’s like reading subtitles on TV but for your phone conversations. These special phones used display every word the caller says in text on a screen, so you can read along in real-time. This means no more guessing or asking someone to repeat themselves. It makes talking on the phone less stressful and more enjoyable because you can confidently understand everything that's being said. It's as if you have a friend there, writing down the other person's words just for you. Whether it's chatting with family or making important calls, the captioned phone service help you stay connected and get the whole conversation, every time.

Tips for Successful Telephoning With Hearing Loss

For those utilizing caption phones and anyone looking to improve their telephone communication, below are some practical tips to ensure successful conversations: 

  • Prepare Your Environment: Choose a quiet environment to make your calls. Background noise can significantly disrupt your ability to hear and be heard during telephone conversations. 
  • Speak Clearly: Articulate your words and speak at a moderate pace to aid understanding for you and the party on the other end of the line. 
  • Optimize Phone Settings: If you're using a mobile phone, explore its accessibility features. Many phones offer enhancements that can amplify sound or adjust frequencies to match your hearing capabilities. 
  • Use Visual Cues: If you're on a video call, make sure your face is well-lit and free from shadows so that facial expressions and lip movements are visible to those who rely on visual cues. 
  • Repeat when Necessary: Don’t hesitate to repeat yourself or ask for information to be repeated if you didn’t catch it the first time. Clarity is key to effective communication. 
  • Plan Your Conversation: Jotting down important points prior to your phone call can help you stay on track and ensure you cover all necessary topics during the conversation. 
  • Patience is a Virtue: Always approach each call with patience, both for yourself and the person you are speaking with. Patience fosters a more relaxed environment, which is conducive to better communication.
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Looking Forward: Technology as a Bridge, Not a Barrier

The experience of the pandemic has been a testament to human resilience and adaptability. As we move further into an era where remote interaction is not just a facet but a fabric of our daily lives, it's crucial to ensure that technology serves as a bridge to communication, not a barrier that segregates us. 

The advancements in captioning technology are a step in the right direction, but the work is far from over. The pandemic unveiled crucial insights into the way we communicate, highlighting the need for inclusive design and support for those with hearing loss. 

Together, we can ensure that the tools we use to connect with each other do not leave anyone behind. As we continue to adapt and evolve within the new normal, captioning phones exemplify the ingenuity and partnership between technology and humanity, providing a clear path towards a more inclusive future.

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