Lip service

Ms Behets relies on facial cues and expressions to understand what customers are saying. Video: Cason Ho.

Face masks have been mandatory under COVID-19 restrictions in Western Australia, but while masks are an effective safety measure, they pose an issue for people who rely on lipreading and other facial cues to communicate.

Stephanie Behets, 20, works front of house at Our Ruby Girl, a café in Como.

She was diagnosed at 3 years old with bilateral sensorineural hearing loss, and requires hearing aids in both ears.

Ms Behets’ hearing aids are colour-coded for her left and right ears. Photo: Cason Ho.

While exact percentages differ among cultures, nonverbal cues are crucial to how we interpret language, especially for people who are hard of hearing.

Ms Behets uses a sign at the front counter to inform customers she relies on lipreading to communicate.

Stephanie Behets has worked at Our Ruby Girl for almost two years. Photo: Cason Ho.

“My hearing aids help me to a certain degree, however I rely on being able to look at peoples’ faces and their mouths to help me understand what they’re saying.”

“I always repeat the order back to the customer before they pay for it to make sure I have the right order,” she says.

“If I’m steaming milk for a coffee, I’ll usually ask that I’ll be with them soon so they don’t talk over the steam noise.”

The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare reported more than 3 million Australians had at least one long-term hearing disorder in 2015.

A quarter of all Australians are projected to have some form of hearing loss by 2050.

According to the Medical Services Advisory Committee, more than 500 children are born in Australia every year with a permanent hearing impairment.

Our Ruby Girl owner Sarah Yates runs her café in South Perth as an equal opportunity employer for people of different abilities.

She says she tries to create an inclusive work environment for all employees.

“We have a buzzer because Steph can’t hear the bell,” Ms Yates says.

“We ding the buzzer, which vibrates to let her know about the food or coffee.”

Ms Behets has tried a variety of tools to help her hear at work, and at home.

“I have a little microphone I take over to the table… and a doormat that we haven’t used yet, which lets me know when somebody walks in,” she says.

Sarah Yates provides employment opportunities to students with disabilities after they’ve left school. Photo: Cason Ho.

Categories: Community, COVID-19, General

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