Please view the main text area of the page by skipping the main menu.

Use of masks, teleworking restricts communication for Japan's hearing-impaired

Hideki Nakazono is seen holding a board he made himself which can be used to point and indicate information, in Shinjuku Ward, Tokyo, on April 8, 2020. (Mainichi/Fusayo Nomura)

TOKYO -- Working from home, wearing masks, social distancing and other behavior have all become expected during the coronavirus crisis, but for people with hearing difficulties who depend on seeing people's mouth movements to understand what others are saying, the situation is throwing up new barriers and difficulties.

Tokyo resident Hideki Nakazono, 72, lost the hearing in his right ear due to an illness when he was 3. Through the use of a hearing aid, he was still able to hear from his left ear, but when he was 41 he suddenly lost the sense completely. In his daily life he finds that the sign language he taught himself from age 22 isn't sufficient, so he supports his communication with writing and lip-reading.

But because supermarket workers are all wearing masks now, he can't hear them announcing when masks are available for sale, nor can he lip-read it, so there have been times when he's missed out on buying them to protect himself from the virus. "Perhaps because I can speak to some extent as someone who lost their hearing after they learned how to talk, they (the staff) think I'm just hard of hearing and don't tend to agree to communicate with me through writing," he said.

Eri Matsumoto, 51, lives in the capital with her husband, three children and a hearing dog. She has been unable to hear most sounds in both ears since she was 23, and primarily communicates by lip-reading. "Until now, when I'm being examined at a hospital or am approached as a customer somewhere, I would ask anyone wearing a mask to remove it. But now I can't say that."

Eri Matsumoto is seen with her hearing dog in this image she provided. Matsumoto has been mostly unable to hear since she was 23 years old.

When she's out with her husband or children, they interpret for her. But, airing her concerns, she said, "Many of the emergency services you can contact only do consultations over the phone, so I do wonder what I would do if I was alone in an emergency."

According to a 2016 investigation by the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, among physical disability certificate holders with hearing impairments aged under 65, 25% communicate using sign language. Among those aged 65 or older, this falls to just 4.3%.

The reason for this is that until recently schools for the deaf in Japan generally placed a greater emphasis on oralism, with a focus on lip-reading skills and vocalization training. The thinking behind it was that students wouldn't learn Japanese if they didn't learn those skills, and so sign language was effectively banned. But even if people can use sign language, it still relies in part on mouth movements and expressions to convey meaning, making it difficult to fully communicate with it while wearing a mask.

Mitsuhiko Ogawa, 57, a deputy director at the incorporated nonprofit organization Tonancyo, an association for people in Tokyo with partial or no hearing, said, "Two meters of social distancing is like creating a communication barrier for people with hearing difficulties. Even for those who use a hearing aid, if they're located away from what they're trying to listen to, all these other sounds get mixed up in it and it's hard to hear others."

Mitsuhiko Ogawa, deputy director of Tonancyo, is seen wearing a transparent mask that he says can be used by professionals at medical facilities in this image he provided. He says that because the mask is currently not on sale, and is both expensive and fogs up easily, he normally uses a standard mask.

Ogawa himself has heavy hearing loss, and can only make out about half of what is said to him. He uses lip-reading and writing to aid his communication. He said of his process, "If I know who is speaking in a place with multiple people, I consciously concentrate on them and am able to understand. Then I use writing and other means to follow up. But as everyone is wearing masks now, I can't even tell who's speaking, so I can't follow the conversation." He added that although masks made with transparent plastic are being sold for customer-facing workers and health care professionals to use, they often fog up or reflect light, making it hard to see through them.

The company in Tokyo that Ogawa is employed at has from March onward been implementing remote working. In video conferencing, it's difficult to see the finer movements of people's mouths, and his colleagues help him follow developments through the written chat function. He has also devised ways to make it easier for him, such as using a microphone next to his computer speakers to get sounds from the meetings to his hearing aid, as well as using speech-to-text software that transcribes what people say. But there are also times when he can hardly understand what's been uttered.

He said, "For me it would be ideal if there were three things in video conferencing: sign language, spoken communication, and some form of writing. When I'm talking face-to-face with someone, it's the greatest help to me if they use a smartphone app that recognizes speech and shows the words on the screen."

Hideki Nakazono said, "When we say 'hearing impaired,' we're really referring to a variety of levels of impairment, from people with total hearing loss who can neither speak nor hear, to people with sensorineural hearing loss who can hear but can't distinguish between words or sounds, people with conductive hearing loss who can't make out words in noisy places, and people with sudden hearing loss who can speak but can't hear.

"It takes time to communicate through writing what conditions people may have, so I want to see public facilities and other places establishing boards that can be used to quickly find out at a glance what level of impairment people have," he said.

(Japanese original by Fusayo Nomura, Integrated Digital News Center)

Also in The Mainichi

The Mainichi on social media