How Face Masks Affect the Use of Echolocation by Individuals With Visual Impairments During COVID-19: International Cross-sectional Online Survey

Interact J Med Res. 2022 Oct 25;11(2):e39366. doi: 10.2196/39366.


Background: Although a critical safety measure, preliminary studies have suggested that the use of a face mask may pose a problem for some users with disabilities. To date, little is known about how the wearing of a traditional face mask may pose a barrier to individuals with visual impairments who draw on auditory cues and echolocation techniques during independent travel.

Objective: The goal of this study was to document the difficulties, if any, encountered during orientation and mobility due to the use of a face mask during the COVID-19 pandemic and the strategies used to address these barriers.

Methods: In total, 135 individuals aged 18 years and older who self-identified as being blind, being deafblind, or having low vision and who could communicate in either English or French completed an anonymous cross-sectional online survey between March 29 and August 23, 2021.

Results: In total, 135 respondents (n=52, 38.5%, men; n=83, 61.5%, women) between the ages of 18 and 79 (mean 48.22, SD 14.48) years participated. Overall, 78 (57.7%) self-identified as blind and 57 (42.3%) as having low vision. In addition, 13 (9.6%) identified as having a combined vision and hearing loss and 3 (2.2%) as deafblind. The most common face coverings used were cloth (n=119, 88.1%) and surgical masks (n=74, 54.8%). Among the barriers raised, participants highlighted that face masks made it more difficult to locate people (n=86, 63.7%), communicate with others (n=101, 74.8%), and locate landmarks (n=82, 60.7%). Although the percentage of those who used a white cane before the pandemic did not substantially change, 6 (14.6%) of the 41 participants who were guide dog users prior to the pandemic reported no longer working with a guide dog at the time of the survey. Moreover, although guide dog users reported the highest level of confidence with independent travel before the pandemic, they indicated the lowest level of confidence a year after the pandemic began.

Conclusions: These results suggest that participants were less able to draw on nonvisual cues during independent travel and social interactions due to the use of a facemask, contributing to a reduction in perceived self-confidence and independence. Findings inform the development of evidence-based recommendations to address identified barriers.

Keywords: COVID-19; echolocation; face mask; health intervention; online survey; orientation and mobility; quality of life; rehabilitation; vision disorder; vision rehabilitation; visual disability; visual impairment.