From behind a mask

By Abby Moore

Regularly wearing face masks has been an adjustment for many people, but especially for the deaf, hard of hearing, and deafblind community. Masks can muffle speech and block the ability to read lips and visual cues. So, how can hearing people better communicate with the deaf community from behind a mask?

Mask challenges

“The Deaf, DeafBlind and Hard of Hearing population is diverse in communication styles and levels of hearing losses,” says Teddy R. Dorsette III, director of communications for National Black Deaf Advocates (NBDA). “There is not a one-size-fits-all as far as communication needs and auditory needs. One thing as a whole about this population is that we are very visual.”

Some people rely on lip reading, and others rely on facial expressions to understand what is being said. “When masks are placed on faces, it strips away the ability to see the lips and facial expressions, and communication access becomes lost,” Dorsette says.

Along with removing the ability to read lips, director at the National Deaf Center on Postsecondary Outcomes Stephanie Cawthon, Ph.D., says masks can alter the clarity of speech. For people who are hard of hearing, this muffling can be difficult to understand. The pandemic has been particularly difficult for members of the deafblind community, like NBDA secretary Ashlea Hayes, who rely on physical touch to communicate. “PT (pro-tactile) communication is our most effective way to convey messages,” Hayes says. “By this pandemic, we are even more limited in our visual communication (the mask) and we are prohibited from touching each other,” Hayes explains.

Unable to see facial expressions and lip movements, the deafblind community is sometimes unaware that others even want to communicate with them. “This furthers the feeling of isolation and is a trigger for anxiety and depression,” Hayes says.

Tips for hearing people

  1. Be aware and be patient. “Understand that we simply don’t speak audible English, we use a visual language, and our vision has been obstructed by this mask,” Hayes says. “This means that we will not be able to understand or communicate effectively with the mask.” If someone signs they’re deaf or says they’re hard of hearing, Cawthon says to change your strategy for communicating. “Screaming behind masks is not any more effective than screaming without a mask,” she says. Dorsette recommends working with the deaf individual to come up with a solution. Patience and an open mind can help everyone involved, he says.
  2. Write it out. Writing down what you want to say can be helpful, whether it’s in the notes section of a phone or on paper. “Pen and paper has gotten us a long way over many, many years,” Cawthon says.
  3. Use a speech-to-text app. Speech-to-text apps can be useful for people in the service industry, or anyone working with a colleague, client, etc., who is deaf or hard of hearing. Before going into work, Cawthon recommends testing the app with your mask on. This will ensure it accurately detects speech. Speech transcription apps are a good option for people who don’t want to write back and forth, Hayes adds.
  4. Opt for video chats over phone calls. When working from home or reaching out to colleagues, clients, friends, or family members who are deaf or hard of hearing, Cawthon recommends using video technology. If you’re at home and you don’t have to have a face mask on, video chat makes reading lips possible, while phone calls do not. “It removes a whole lot of barriers that you don’t necessarily need to put up,” Cawthon says.
  5. Consider a clear face mask. Businesses and service industries may consider asking employees to wear clear face masks to better serve their deaf and hard-of-hearing customers. “There’s a growing movement toward having clear face masks as an option,” Cawthon says. “One common myth is that the deaf person needs to wear a clear face mask, but the hearing people don’t—it’s actually the opposite.”

Bottom line

While safety is important, face masks can be a barrier to communication for deaf, hard-of-hearing, and the deaf blind community. “Deaf people are remarkably resourceful people,” Hayes says. “As the majority of the population lack the skills necessary to communicate in ASL, or PT sign language, we have to use a holistic approach to communicate.”

Now that masks block the ability to read lips and other visual expressions, it’s important for hearing people to be patient, understanding, and adapt their methods of communication.

Abby Moore is an Editorial Assistant at mindbodygreen. Reprinted with permission.

*The National Deaf Center is using the lowercase deaf to describe people who may identify as deaf, deafblind, deafdisabled, hard of hearing, late-deafened, and hearing impaired. The choice to capitalize Deaf or DeafBlind is a personal choice.

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