Communication and Face Masks

Danielle Roberts, Speech and Language Therapist

Author: Danielle Roberts, Qualified Speech and Language Therapist with specialism in acquired neurological disorders.

Mental Capacity Assessor and Quality Monitoring Officer at TSF Assessors

Masks are a necessary part of an increasing number of face-to-face interactions in our Covid-19 world. Whilst masks aim to provide a barrier to virus transmission, an unwanted side effect is they also create a barrier to communication. This requires particular consideration when assessing someone’s mental capacity and adhering to Principle 2 of the Mental Capacity Act – supported decision making.

Masks obstruct the clarity and audibility of communication. ALL people who are sighted rely on facial expression and lip reading to aid their comprehension when listening to a conversation partner. This reliance increases if there is any hearing impairment. Even those with a mild hearing impairment find it noticeably more difficult to comprehend when they cannot see the person’s mouth who is speaking to them.

There are approximately 12 million people in the UK who have a hearing impairment (approximately 1 in 6 people).

Therefore, that is at least 1 in 6 people in the UK who will undoubtedly be finding it noticeably more difficult to hear, understand and communicate due to the usage of face masks.

The Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists (RCSLT) have highlighted the communication challenge with opaque masks and the UK Government have acknowledged this issue.

In response, and as reported in the press this week, the Department of Health and Social Care have now purchased a number of ‘ClearMasks’ (transparent face masks) to trial across health and social care settings.

However, they are not meant for high risk environments and, not only is there currently a lack of clarity as to what constitutes ‘high risk’, there has also been mixed feedback, reported by the RCSLT, from speech and language therapists who have trialled wearing the mask.This is a current and evolving situation.

Whilst this is a welcome development, we must be mindful that a transparent face mask still has the potential to be very confusing, unsettling and even distressing for a large group of clients with certain communication challenges, such as those with dementia, learning disability and autism, or any person who does not understand why the mask is being worn.

We, at TSF, offer both face-to-face and video-link assessments, and will work with our clients to ascertain which is the best medium for the individual, based on their specific circumstances and preferences.

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