September 28, 2020

Masks create problems for deaf individuals

St. Louis County issued a mask mandate for everyone over the age of 9. This public health order has caused new communication barriers for deaf and hard-of-hearing people. 

Sarah Rush, a professor at Webster University, is a hard of hearing individual. Although not completely deaf, she relies on lipreading for multiple reasons. Outside of school, she interprets for other deaf and hard of hearing individuals. 

On July 3, Saint Louis County issued a public health order that all individuals above the age of nine wear a facial covering while indoors. For members of the deaf community, this has created a new barrier in communicating with hearing people. Deaf students and professors alike are now being forced to adapt to another new challenge brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I can’t really do any interpreting right now because I can’t see or hear through the masks and I rely so heavily on lipreading,” Rush said.

New innovations surrounding this issue have started to pop up on the market. Rush detailed that her experience with mask wearing has not been positive. She has chosen to wear a mask with a transparent mouth, but it is subject to a number of flaws.

“This kind of mask fogs up and sweats,” Rush said.

What is maybe a step in the right direction is still no solution for individuals that need to read lips in order to communicate. Sarah Prechtel, Executive Director at DEAF, Inc. a Saint Louis based company, shared a similar sentiment about masks.

Prechtel is a deaf person who communicates through sign language and oral speaking. She has no issue with the mask mandate and is very much in support of facial coverings for health and safety. But, as a deaf individual, she is facing challenges as a result.

“The barriers I face is the direct result of the types of masks that are widely and readily available and accessible, and the lack of education and awareness around the use of masks,” Prechtel said.

The widely distributed forms of masks are completely solid in the front and leave no visible access for lipreading unlike a transparent mask. Not only does this create a communication barrier, but it can also become a health concern. 

“I frequently find myself needing to self-advocate and ask them to either write on a piece of paper or pull their mask away from their lips so I can understand them,” Prechtel said. “This is not ideal as it then puts that person and myself at risk of exposing ourselves to the illness around us.”

Deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals could be at a higher risk of contracting COVID-19 without widespread accommodations. The struggles do not stop there. Businesses that aim to help the deaf and hard of hearing community are also forced to make new changes in order to maintain safety.

“Our Interpreting Department saw a sharp drop in services when businesses closed their doors and/or moved to the remote, work from home option,” Prechtel said. “We now offer virtual interpreting services and offer this as an alternative to customers with virtual meetings, conferences, appointments, or training.” 

These resources are local to Webster Groves. DEAF, Inc. Is located close to campus and could help provide assistance to students facing these same struggles. 

Abrianna Norris is a student at Gallaudet University in Washington, DC. Gallaudet is famously known for being a historically deaf and hard of hearing school. As a deaf student, Norris has her own opinion on the subject of communication barriers. 

“I’m not a good lip reader,” Norris said. “I use gesture communications when people try to speak to me while wearing a mask.”

The classroom setting has not presented any new challenges for her because of the wide education of deaf communication on campus. Gallaudet made the decision to continue the fall semester online. 

Until a solution to these communication problems is reached, Prechtel offered a few ways that hearing individuals can be helpful communicators. 

“Try to speak loud enough, but don’t scream, so the person can hear you. Gesture if possible. Write it out if you can. Ask the individual directly what would help them,” Prechtel said. “And, most importantly, be patient. It can be hard in the moment to realize that someone may have simply not heard you or easy to become frustrated when someone is not understanding but please be patient.”

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