The Eight Faces – a deaf artist’s perspective on masks

Two rows of 4 faces each on a different brightly colored background. The features of each of face are obscured by jags and multiple shapes of contrasting bright colors.
The Eight Faces by Ryan Seslow

At this moment, after 2 years of pandemic living, many COVID restrictions are being rolled back in the communities where we – Michele and Ana – are located. We see similar steps being taken across the U.S. and in other parts of the world. Whether these rollbacks represent a return to normality, or just a lull before the next variant strikes, only time will tell. The current result, for us, is a patchwork of requirements – our local grocery store no longer has a mask mandate, but at the time of writing, the classes we are teaching still require that everybody be masked.

This inflection point in our local pandemic experience provides a time to pause and reflect how the widespread adoption of masks has shaped our lives as deaf/heard of hearing (HoH) academics in the last two years. It is possible to simultaneously hold two opinions of masks. We are grateful that a low-tech solution like mask-wearing has allowed us to be out and about in public and to teach our classes while keeping ourselves and others safe these past years; we are grateful to be in communities where mask mandates were embraced as part of a collective action we could undertake for public health. At the same time, we have despaired about the barriers that masks have imposed on our ability to communicate and connect with others (see Ana’s post on Navigating a Masked World), and the consequential isolation; we have mourned the limits on our engagement with our students when every verbal interaction is such a struggle for comprehension.  We also have tried alternatives, such as clear masks, and have found them to not be a solution– they fog up, become uncomfortable and do not protect as well as other masks. Communication is still a struggle with clear masks in the classroom and elsewhere.

In today’s post, we want to highlight the art of Ryan Seslow that so accurately captures the effect masks have had on our lives as deaf/HoH people. In his series of “The Eight Faces” (pictured above) we see our struggles portrayed much more effectively than we can do so in writing.  In Ryan’s own words (<280 words each due to limits of twitter postings):

“Important fact about this series – I’m Deaf & this series is an expression of how hard it has been to receive communication from a world of people wearing masks for the last 1.8 years. Of course the masks are necessary to protect us.”

“A masked face takes away all access to read facial expressions, the lips & the mouth to speech read & connect to rapport. The portraits are what distorted audio garble looks like as a visual example of strained hearing attempts over and over again.”

We also direct our readers to Ryan’s digital art series: Waking Accessibility Awareness, which so vividly capture his (and ours!) continuous challenge for access as a hard of hearing artist in the academic and art worlds.

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