While the pandemic rages around the world, I know I have been incredibly lucky. Like many, I have struggled to keep my kids busy and to some degree engaged with their education, struggled to keep any semblance of work productivity, and struggled to remain optimistic about a return to a post-pandemic life that resembles my pre-pandemic one. However, I have been healthy, and nobody close to me has fallen sick. And—through the accident of timing—I have also experienced the pandemic in two geographic areas, one of which has thus far managed the coronavirus quite well (Germany), and one where I arrived once it was under control (Massachusetts, USA).
And yet… There is a part of me that very much wants to throw a tantrum and howl at the moon about the unfairness of it all. All because of the need for face masks, which have greatly reduced my ability to communicate.
In the last 4 months, face masks have emerged as the cheapest, most reliable method to stop the spread of COVID-19. We all have to wear them. And while all the deaf/hard of hearing (HoH) people I know are 100% behind mask wearing, many of us have been put in a bind. Navigating effective communication when out and about is never effortless for us. Lip-reading does not capture all spoken sounds, and there is a great cognitive load involved in filling the gaps to understand what is being said. Add masks, and communication with others becomes nearly impossible.
To begin with, face masks make it very hard for those of us relying on speech- and lip-reading and on signed languages to understand speech.
This has been documented very eloquently in this article by Sara Nović for the Washington Post; in this interview of Gallaudet professor Dr. Julie Hochgesang; in this article by Shari Eberts for the “Living with Hearing Loss” blog; and this post by Nehama Rogozen for Slate magazine.
And, despite the feel-good idea of face masks with clear “windows,” our communication travails aren’t likely to end any time soon, as explained by Katherine Woodcock (@safeandsilent) in this and this blog post.
And, surprisingly, masks pose an unexpected hazard to our hearing devices.
As a wearer of behind the ear (BTE) hearing aids and glasses—and now masks—I find that there are just too many things hanging from my ears. Trying to adjust or remove any of them leads to a tragi-comic (yes, I am still capable of laughing at myself as I nurse my tantrum) Rube Goldberg machine chain reaction that inevitably ends badly for at least one of my accessories. I derive some solace (and humor) from knowing I’m not the only one facing these issues:
But it is a pyrrhic sort of consolation. Inevitably I find that the effort of trying to navigate a masked world becomes too laborious, leading to a temptation to disengage and isolate. I want the world to beat COVID-19; I also want to not be cut off from the world. On the worst days it seems neither is possible.
Many of us are struggling to come up with solutions for this conundrum wrapped in a mask. Suggestions of relying on pen and paper or speech-to-text apps are helpful for short interactions, but I see friends starting to cautiously socialize in masks, an activity I feel cut out of. While I know that there is likely not a one-size solution for all of us deaf/HoH, I would love to collect suggestions on how to be a part of the masked world.
I leave you with some parting words from Sara Nović to hearing people:
“The burden of communication has never been solely on deaf people. The pandemic has simply unmasked the fact that we usually do most of the work for you. Now that we physically can’t, we need you to do your part.”