Now face mask rules are being relaxed in some places. What does this mean for the deaf community?
While the world is still in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, the wearing of face masks in public spaces have eased in some places. At the time of writing, in the United States, masks are still required on public transportation and in medical facilities. Many states, however, have eased restrictions with masks optional in public, which of course means masks may still be worn.
The era of masks posed a new world to navigate for many. But for the deaf and hard of hearing community, it changed accessibility. Many people with hearing loss were used to having independence in communication and had to adjust to relying on others for help. Hearing family and friends had to adjust as well. Others experienced listening fatigue and social anxiety because of the struggle to read lips.
The easing of mask mandates in some places have the deaf community feeling a mixture of happiness, relief, and trepidation. For the past two years, they had limited access to the methods of communication that they rely on: primarily lip-reading, facial expressions, and people’s voices being softer and less clear.
I never realized how deaf I was until the era of masks and being in a world where access was already limited. No matter how much time went by, I couldn’t just “get used to it.” I didn’t realize how much I read lips and facial expressions until I couldn’t anymore. It almost felt like I had absolutely no communication in many environments without that access. So the easing of masks is a huge relief. However, I will say that masks made me realize that even though I’m not profoundly deaf at this time, it’s still okay to establish a Deaf identity since that is my reality in some environmental contexts.
Although every single person is different, we may have similar but unique insights to offer when it comes to this topic. I spoke with several people about the easing of mask mandates and what this means for the deaf community.
“There are already challenges deaf and hard of hearing people face each day to have a clear understanding, even without the masks,” says HearingLikeMe writer and Phonak hEARo Kayla Deguire. “When you add a mask on a person and a clear wall, that adds two additional barriers. It makes communication incredibly challenging. Clarity can be especially prominent in a situation, for example, if you are rushed to the hospital. We have to wonder what communication systems we have in place for deaf and hard of hearing people to gain equal access to communication. Masks becoming a regular thing made me realize how critical communication access is. We need solutions that provide equal access, such as captioning systems, more interpreters in hospitals, nursing homes, etc.”
“It’s really tough as someone who believes that masks are helpful in preventing the spread of a pandemic that we’re two years into, and being so happy to see faces again and read lips,” says HearingLikeMe writer and Phonak hEARO Janna Cowper, who is a mother to two deaf children. “It’s like having my access tool back, and being uneasy about it. I hope though that ditching masks does not stop the innovation of new clear masks for the future that are easier to wear.”
Throughout the pandemic, we’ve seen a rise in clear masks. There’s no saying that another pandemic might occur, or situations where we may need clear masks again in the future! Deaf doctors, surgeons, nurses, and patients often rely on these clear masks every day. Why not keep the innovation growing to advance this type of access and technology for those who need it? Clear masks benefit everyone and should be the default.
“Face masks have made life very difficult for individuals with hearing loss since they can create a significant barrier for good communication,” said audiologist Liliana Piccinini. “A cloth face mask reduces a speaker’s volume by about five decibels and makes it difficult to hear high-frequency sounds such as “s,” “f,” and “th.” The problems may be exacerbated if a thicker, heavier type of mask is worn. N95 masks reduce volume by about 12 decibels! I hear from patients every day how happy they are that the mask mandates have changed. Hopefully this experience has helped everyone realize the importance of good communication strategies and skills.”
Shasta Dreese, a Deaf ASL professor from Penn State University, also shared her thoughts on the lifting of mask mandates. “I feel a huge relief,” Dreese said. “It’s like…freedom! Like I’ve been trapped in my own little world for so long. Now I’m getting my accessibility back. Feeling anxious less and feeling more happy! My mental health will be better!
“It’s like…freedom! Like I’ve been trapped in my own little world for so long.”
While we realize that masks are a crucial part to safety, and are still required in some spaces, we can’t go without acknowledging what a relief this is for many. However, we also can’t ignore the lessons that masks have taught us, despite the immense frustrations. New insights were gained, we became stronger advocates and tried new things. We worked more on decreasing the stigmas surrounding hearing loss. Our negative experiences were channeled into positive lessons and increased awareness of accessibility and innovation.
Unfortunately, we must also be prepared for mask mandates to return if COVID cases surge and sub-variants emerge. But as I always say, with every negative or unfavorable situation, we can always find something positive in the fog. Even if it’s only one thing.