How face masks are affecting the deaf and hard of hearing community during the pandemic

  • The deaf and hard of hearing community is struggling to communicate
  • Face masks make lip reading and speaking ASL difficult
  • Specialized masks are being produced but not enough to fill demand

The general populace is gradually adapting to public face mask requirements in their communities, as COVID-19 continues to pose a serious risk to public health. This practice is one of the best defenses we have against the highly-contagious virus, but it’s also causing problems for some people—specifically, the deaf and hard of hearing community, which has been struggling to adjust to the new normal.

This community, which makes up approximately 5% of the global population, is working to overcome a new hurdle brought about by the pandemic. With people wearing face masks, it can be difficult for deaf and hard of hearing people to communicate. Without the ability to read lips, which is the primary way to communicate with those who don’t speak American Sign Language (ASL), many deaf people are at a loss. 

Even those who can communicate using ASL are facing hurdles. ASL often requires use of the face, with many words utilizing the eyebrows, mouth, chin, and cheeks. Facial expressions are a huge part of ASL, and without the ability to see the full face, the language can be extremely difficult to use. 

Even press conferences and other televised events can be difficult for the community to understand. Many statements by experts are made from behind a mask, which—without an interpreter present—typically leaves deaf and hard of hearing people in the dark. 

Thankfully, there are solutions out there. A 21-year-old Eastern Kentucky University student named Ashley Lawrence has been hard at work getting specialized masks out to people in need. These masks, which use plastic fabric and bed sheets, are partially see-through. They allow the mouth to be clearly seen through the plastic portion of the mask, and they can greatly ease the communication struggle for deaf and hard of hearing individuals. Lawrence is even working to create different types of fasteners, for those individuals with cochlear implants or hearing aids, which make an ear strap difficult.

The Hearing, Speech and Deaf Center in Seattle is also taking steps to lessen the communication gap. It created a video series titled “WHAT IS HAPPENING!?!?!?!?” that aims to share updates on the coronavirus epidemic in ASL. It also shines light on developing news and provides insight into things like mental health and things to do at home.

Sources: Quartz, Business Insider, USA Today, Huffington Post

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