The Effects of Masks on the Deaf Community
By Maryam Sheikh
One of the changes that has been brought about due to the pandemic is the requirement of face masks in public spaces. Though masks have significantly aided in reducing the transmission of the virus and protecting communities, they have also come with challenges – especially for those in the deaf and hard of hearing community.
Many of us may feel as though masks are an inconvenience that hinder our ability to communicate. Unfortunately, those challenges are exacerbated for those who rely on lipreading as a form of communication.
Masks can muffle and distort speech. They also prevent people from being able to pick up on social cues and context because facial expressions are unreadable. All of this can contribute to increased stress, anxiety, and fatigue from daily interactions. They can also lead to frustration and hopelessness – especially if a lack of communication results in misunderstandings or mistakes. Over time, this can manifest itself in increased feelings of isolation.
So, how can we help address this issue? One of the most important actions to take involves spreading awareness of the problem. This helps people remember to be mindful of deaf individuals and utilize alternate strategies of communicating. The issue can be best understood by outlining the challenges faced in the medical field, the education system, and everyday interactions.
In the healthcare industry, deaf individuals have suffered from poor health outcomes due to miscommunication. This can stem from inadequate assessment and insufficient follow-up procedures. This also presents itself as an issue with older patients who suffer from hearing loss. Thus, it can be helpful to shift to virtual consultations so that communication can be made easier.
Currently, school is taking place both via in-person learning and online programming. As such, it’s important for educators and facilitators to be mindful of accommodations that deaf students may need. This can include hiring ASL (American Sign Language) interpreters, providing transcripts for lectures, and meeting with students to talk through any concerns.
In everyday life, deaf individuals may struggle to communicate with cashiers and sales associates at stores due to loud background noises. This is why it is integral for frontline workers to understand that it may take a few tries to communicate – this will require patience. Workers can help deaf customers by removing their masks for short periods of time to speak (if it is safe to do so) while the customers keep their masks on. They can also use technology to communicate, if possible.
Technology has certainly made it easier to tackle this problem. Now, there are many tools available that can facilitate live captioning for online content, as well as text transcription for in-person conversations. There’s also the option of utilizing whiteboards, notepads, and sticky notes to communicate through writing.
Clear masks and transparent face shields are also part of the solution. There are many businesses that produce these items in bulk, but they can also be sourced from local shops and small businesses. However, it’s important to do a little bit of research and check that the PPE is up to local health and safety standards.
Overall, empathy and awareness are key in beginning to solve this issue. If we are all more mindful of the challenges that individuals in our community face, we are more likely to come to solutions together. Stay safe and well!