How Masks Affect Communication and Work for Deaf Individuals
Everywhere you go, you can see people wearing face masks to protect themselves and others against the COVID-19 virus. While masks can protect against disease, they can be a problem for people who depend on watching facial expressions and reading lips. At work and in life, deaf individuals have had to adapt to the use of face masks and to find new ways of understanding other people.
Communication is a complicated process, involving factors such as facial expressions and gestures in addition to the actual words that people use. Even for people with good hearing, up to eighty or ninety percent of communication can be nonverbal. For people with either partial or complete hearing loss, watching the face and mouth for cues can make the difference in understanding what others are saying.
With people using masks during the pandemic, communication has become even more difficult for the deaf. In daily life, clear communication is very important, but it is essential at work. When work involves vital safety instructions or essential information on other subjects, deaf individuals need to be sure that they have understood what others have said.
One solution is for people to wear clear plastic face shields or specially made face masks with a section in the middle made of plastic. These types of face coverings can be helpful, but they are not very common. Only a few people have them, but they can be very helpful especially for people working in nursing homes or geriatric wards in hospitals. In these places, most people have at least some hearing loss.
To help deal with communication problems, some deaf workers have tried to teach their colleagues at least the basics of sign language. Expecting them to become fluent would be impossible, like teaching them French or Spanish, since American Sign Language (ASL) is a complete language of its own. However, teaching some of the most important phrases and concepts can be helpful. For example, factory workers could teach others some basic signs for “off,” “on,” or “emergency.”
People in office jobs have another set of challenges. Many meetings have moved online, with people discussing issues or projects from home. That can be helpful but also challenging for deaf individuals. While people generally do not wear their masks at home, small computer screens can make it difficult to read lips or see small facial expressions. In offices that have resumed in-person meetings, the problems can be even more difficult to solve.
Deaf workers can help deal with these issues in various ways. For in-person meetings, hiring an American Sign Language interpreter to translate the meeting and any side conversations can be helpful. For online meetings, using a closed captioning software is good for capturing what other people have said. While the software is not perfect and it can sometimes wildly misinterpret what someone has said, it can be useful. Writing down questions or instructions can also be helpful.
Even for hearing people, wearing masks has made it hard to communicate. Depending on the type of mask, people have been able to understand between 46 and 57 percent fewer words than they could without any masks. For deaf individuals, the challenges are different but even more difficult. This is especially true in jobs that depend on communication, such as teaching or working with the public in offices, museums, or other places. With help, however, people can overcome some of these barriers during this difficult time.
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