Masks are making it difficult for deaf people to communicate

2020-04-30 23:55:04 - General

Face masks meant to curb the spread of the coronavirus are hindering communication for the hearing impaired.

Face masks meant to curb the spread of the coronavirus are hindering communication for the hearing impaired.

The deaf and hard of hearing often rely on lip-reading to communicate, proving face masks, now required in most states, to be a source of anxiety, stress and confusion.

Now, advocates for the hearing-loss community hope to make people more aware of these unique difficulties, advising everyone to exercise extra consideration — and patience — for the deaf as they try to navigate a face-masked world during the pandemic.

Like so many in her position, Cassandra Harris — who has “moderately severe hearing loss” in both ears — says she dreaded her first trip to the grocery store after essential workers were ordered to wear masks.

“The first time I was at Publix when all the employees were wearing masks, I immediately felt uncomfortable and sort of panicky,” Harris, a special education teacher from Spartanburg, SC, tells The Post.

Normally, she says she enjoys some small talk with the grocery clerks, but in their masks she knew she wouldn’t be able to see them talking to her.

“I gave them a quick smile and before I even thought about it was avoiding eye contact, in hopes that they wouldn’t try to strike up a conversation,” she continues. “Of course I had issues with my debit card and the cashier was trying to tell me what to do, and I definitely couldn’t understand her.”

Harris, 33, says the experience left her feeling “embarrassed and flustered,” and she feared that the associates assumed she was “rude or being snobby for not talking to them.”

Harris’ anecdote echoes multitudes of other Americans who are deaf or hard of hearing.

“Everyone with hearing loss has developed some kind of strategy [to communicate]” Carolyn Stern, assistant director of outreach and strategic initiatives for the Center for Hearing and Communication (CHC), tells The Post. But in the time of COVID-19, some of those crutches — whether lip-reading, a pen and paper or a talk-to-text tool — are no longer accessible or practical in many settings. Stern is particularly concerned with the psychological effect of these complicated interactions. Her organization recently even devoted a 10-part series of YouTube videos on emotional coping mechanisms for the aurally challenged.

“It is triggering stress, anxiety, aggravation, frustration and fear because now they’re entering situations they used to manage well, and now their communication strategies are not working,” she explains. “They’re no longer in control and are cut off.”

The issue is perhaps most acute where clear communication is most vital — in the medical setting. For those who can’t hear, the fear of being lost in translation with your physician is only compounded by the stress of illness and treatment at a time like this.

Having gone through it herself recently, Harris can attest to the bewilderment of visiting a clinic when lip-reading is unavailable.

“Even though it’s a one-on-one situation, it’s been incredibly hard to understand the doctor and the receptionist,” she says, though they are both aware she is hard of hearing. After asking them to repeat themselves “multiple times,” she explains, “the receptionist just went ahead and pulled down her mask so I could understand her.”

Potential workarounds, especially in health-care settings, have been innovated for years. In 2018, two Johns Hopkins graduates launched ClearMask, a fully transparent surgical mask for doctors and nurses. Unfortunately, they’re only taking preorder requests from the public as their operations are currently prioritizing hospitals, health-care institutions and essential workers during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to their website. And a college student in Kentucky created the DHH Mask Project last month to help facilitate getting clear masks to those who are deaf or hard of hearing.

Meanwhile, there are tutorials online for makeshift masks with clear cutouts, but Stern warns not to expect these to catch on anytime soon.

“It’s not realistic to expect everyone to get access to and use [these] masks,” she says. “People with hearing loss need solutions now — they can’t wait for these masks to be mass-produced and adapted.” Plus, typical behind-the-ear masks can be uncomfortable, as the elastic bands behind ears can interfere with the placement of hearing aids and cochlear implants. Worse, putting on or removing masks may cause some expensive devices to be knocked off and potentially lost.

Stern and her colleagues will present these problems and potential solutions during a virtual panel discussion on May 4, which will be streamed and recorded live and shared on the CHC website and social media following the talk. In the meantime, she says everyone with hearing loss will have to devise “individualized” ways of hearing and being heard. She tells her peers to “think about the context, what will be asked or discussed” during a meeting.

And, for the tech-savvy, she encourages people to use real-time talk-to-text apps such as Google Live Transcribe, Ava and Otter, and to “consider attaching a directional microphone to your smartphone to improve its pickup of the speaker’s voice.”

“Most important, be mindful of the emotional impact this has on you both before, during and after [an exchange],” she concludes. “This is not easy, but some of these tips will help.”

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