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Patricia Johnson, clinical audiologist and assistant professor at UNC, was quick to realize the problem widespread mask-wearing would cause for a certain segment of UNC patients.

“As soon as we could see the pandemic coming down the pipeline as a clinician, my thought went straight to masks,” said Johnson. “What a disaster masks were going to be for my patients with hearing loss as well as everyone else.”

According to Johnson, the intended purpose of masks as a barrier muffles sound — filtered high-pitched sounds as it protects. Since consonants such as “F,” “P” and “H” all do heavy lifting when it comes to providing clarity to spoken words, widespread mask-wearing struck a blow to people who depend on visual cues for communication.

“I know a lot of people say, ‘well, I’ve never been trained to lip read. I don’t lip read.’ Wrong. We all read lips … especially if we’re struggling to hear, if the lighting is poor, if there’s any kind of background noise,” said Johnson. “Our eyes and our ears are very tightly integrated — our eyes kick in to help our ears, and masks have blocked all lip reading, it’s as if we now functionally have a mild hearing loss.”

Johnson takes on these challenges — and others like them — in her role as a clinical assistant professor of audiology in the division of Speech and Hearing Sciences, under the department of Allied Health in the UNC School of Medicine.

Johnson teaches doctoral students in Carolina’s top-ranked audiology program. With the UNC Hearing and Communication Center serving as the training site for Carolina’s doctoral students, Johnson also provides daily clinical education via one-on-one student supervision, using her expertise in hearing technology.

“One of my personal interests is community engagement, getting out into particularly senior centers, local libraries, the Orange County Department on Aging types of programs to educate the public about audiology, about the impact of hearing loss,” said Johnson. “[To help people find] the practical things that they can do to hear better. Because, unfortunately, when I say to someone ‘I’m an audiologist,’ a lot of times people don’t know what that is.”

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