Masks/hearing opener illustration

The CDC recommends people 2 years old and up wear face masks in social settings where distancing is difficult to maintain. But, without adaptations to how we speak, that means many who are deaf or hard of hearing miss out on the conversation.

During the pandemic, masks have become both a staple and a controversy. On April 3, The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention officially recommended that people wear face masks in public settings, especially where social distancing standards are difficult to maintain, such as grocery stores. That recommendation has been met with varying levels of compliance. But one thing that’s clear is that wearing a mask affects communication for people who are deaf or hard of hearing.

Masks can muffle people’s words and make it impossible to read lips. Stephanie Logan, executive director of Deaf Lead, a deaf advocacy organization in Columbia, says wearing a mask that hides half of a person’s face makes communicating in American Sign Language nearly impossible, as ASL is about 90-95% facial expressions. This presents a dilemma: Masks help slow the spread of COVID-19, but they inhibit communication.

Logan describes wearing masks as unsettling for her as a person who is deaf. She says for people who are hearing, the intonation of a verbal sentence can contribute to its meaning and how it is understood. For people who are deaf, this intonation comes from people’s facial expressions, which are difficult to communicate when much of the face is covered by a mask.

She prefers to communicate with people who wear clear shields, so she can see their faces and mouths, or at least a clear mask that allows the mouth to be seen.

Greta Balasz, a former MU student who transferred to St. Louis University in spring, is an advocate for the deaf community because her mother is deaf. Balasz says people who are deaf already have to fight for their right to communicate in many places and the pandemic compounded this.

“Every single deaf person, it’s almost a universal experience, they struggle for communication,” Balasz says. “They have to work to find a way to accommodate their communication to hearing people. Hearing people very rarely accommodate communication to deaf people.”

Balasz says hearing people need to think about situations they are in and how they can accommodate people who are deaf in those settings. And different situations lend themselves to different types of communication.

Solutions include speech-to-text phone apps, whiteboards that can be disinfected or businesses hiring people who know sign language or are learning sign language themselves, Logan says. Additionally, for those who are hard of hearing, speakers can amplify their voices with smartphone apps.

Health care can already be largely inaccessible for the deaf community because of the lack of interpreters, especially in rural areas where interpreters might have to drive long distances to provide their services.

Interpreter Corinne Liedtke says strong facial expressions are necessary for interpreters to communicate in American Sign Language to people who are deaf, especially in situations of crisis.

Interpreting for a person who is deaf and blind can be even more difficult with pandemic measures in place. To make the signs understandable, interpreters must touch the palms of the person they are interpreting for. Gloves muddle the meaning of the sign for the reader and create a tough choice between effective communication and maintaining social distancing standards.

“While I’m so grateful as a deaf individual to be able to still access the information without a mask, I identify that they are putting themselves at risk by not wearing a mask,” Logan says.

Logan says she thinks clear masks should be made more accessible to those in the medical field, restaurants and other businesses. She emphasized that accessible masks would not be an expensive addition.

Balasz agrees. “There are resources out there,” she says. “You just have to search them out.”

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