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Five uniformed airport employees wear black helmets with dark visors that shield their eyes and blue medical masks that cover their mouths, at Qatar’s Hamad International Airport.

Courtesy of Hamad International Airport

Even now, three months into COVID-19, the picture shocks. Five uniformed airport employees wear black helmets with dark visors that shield their eyes and blue medical masks covering their mouths. Their faces are completely hidden. The photo is from Qatar’s Hamad International Airport, where staff now wear helmets with infrared thermal imaging to take people’s temperatures without making contact.

If security around travel used to be merely annoying, it’s become almost frightening.

From Uber to airlines, from the Middle East to the Midwest, masks are the new norm. But for one group of people in particular – those with hearing loss – they pose a significant problem. Masks prevent speech reading, a helpful, if not essential, coping mechanism for the one in 10 Canadians who don’t hear well.

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As a travel writer with profound hearing loss, I’m dreading my first trip post-COVID-19. I’m not alone. “This is a huge concern to our members,” says Marilyn Kingdon, president and chair of the Canadian Hard of Hearing Association. “It cuts our members off from the essential cues required for effective communication.”

Speech reading is more than just watching someone’s lips. It includes observing how someone’s jaw and tongue move, as well as their facial expressions. Even before COVID-19, travelling with hearing loss was challenging; boarding announcements at airports and captain’s messages are usually unintelligible.

In the months ahead, imagine going through airport security and a masked screening agent asks you something. You can’t hear. The person behind you tries to help by repeating the question, but he or she is two metres away and also masked.

The Canadian Air Transport Security Authority says in a case like this, a screening supervisor could write directions on paper and hold it up for the passenger to read. But there must be a modern solution more technologically advanced than pen and paper.

Several companies now make masks with clear panels over the lips. And just as school boards are providing iPads and laptops to help students get through this pandemic, these tools could help travellers, too. Downloadable apps can provide instantaneous written transcription of what is being said. “They’re hands-free, germ-free and play upon voice activation,” says Emily Jones, marketing manager for Alpenwild, a U.S.-based company that specializes in small group active travel in the Alps.

A frequent traveller with hearing loss herself, Jones would like to see iPads in airports, with reliable voice-to-text apps such as AVA and Otter.ai already downloaded and open. At security screening, all an agent would have to do is speak within range of the iPad’s microphone and the words would flash onto the screen in big print. Being able to read an agent’s questions could prevent serious mishaps later. You want to be sure you answered correctly, for instance, when asked “Do you want your bags checked all the way through?”

An older technology that’s common in airports in Europe and Britain is finally making inroads in North America. Magnetic induction loops transmit audio wirelessly to hearing aids equipped with telecoils. Victoria’s airport recently installed small hearing loops at departure gates for one-on-one communication, while Vancouver, Edmonton and Ottawa international airports offer them at information desks. Victoria and Edmonton are planning to add larger loops so people can hear public broadcasts at boarding gates. And on the water, BC Ferries has installed hearing loops on more than a dozen of its ferries in the past few years.

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But once you’ve arrived at your destination, face masks will make hearing at hotels and restaurants difficult. And forget about asking a masked stranger on the street for directions. Fortunately, Google Maps’ new Live View feature superimposes arrows and directions over the actual scene on your screen.

What about hearing tour guides? Imagine trying to understand a masked guide with an accent as he or she relates some arcane cultural tradition.

“I think self-guided tours will grow even more than before,” says Antonio Gavinho, owner of Lisbon-based Portugal Nature Trails. About 80 per cent of Gavinho’s clients already opt for self-guided cycling or walking tours because they’re less expensive. As long as COVID-19 remains a threat, he says they make more sense in other ways, too. “People will feel safer as they can be just with their companion or small group,” while leaving route planning, hotel bookings and luggage transfers up to the company.

Still, we can’t escape the need to communicate. And the travel industry must take note, Kingdon says. “Movies on planes continue to be an issue, since not all are captioned. More electronic signs in airport boarding lounges would be an asset. Captioning on TV screens in lounges and bars would be invaluable.”

“What people do not always realize,” she adds, “is that in noisy situations such as airports, everyone can benefit from the use of these devices, not just those with hearing loss, because we live in a noisy world.”

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