Regardless of your political or scientific stance on face masks, one thing is certain: people who are deaf and hard of hearing face additional challenges related to face coverings.
For one thing, many deaf and hard of hearing people (depending on their degree of hearing loss) rely on lip reading to communicate. As mask mandates are in full swing across the country – and as COVID-19 infection rates continue to rise and fall and rise again thanks to the Omicron variant – people with hearing loss need to find new ways to communicate effectively while simultaneously navigating security measures.
“This pandemic and masking has become a huge problem for [people who are deaf]actor and screenwriter CJ Jones, who is deaf, told WWD in American Sign Language through an interpreter. “Even with the transparent masks, it doesn’t work, because [the masks] fogging and it is not visible enough [to see through].”
Face masks can apparently be a pain for almost anyone. Many people, unaccustomed to having things on their faces, find them uncomfortable. Face masks also hide non-verbal cues, such as facial expressions like smiling or frowning. But they have also been instrumental in preventing the spread of the coronavirus. Therefore, the Centers for Disease Control and Preventions declared face masks “an essential tool in the fight against COVID-19” at the start of the pandemic.
But for the approximately 37.5 million American adults (or 15 percent) who are deaf or hard of hearing, they pose additional challenges. Internationally, the numbers are even higher. The World Health Organization estimates that more than 5% worldwide, or 430 million people, suffer from some kind of “disabling hearing loss”.
Jones, who is deaf but can recognize some sounds, uses ASL, her first language, to communicate with others in the deaf world. With hearing people, however, he often relies on his lip-reading skills.
But the art of lip reading is risky. In one experiment, conducted by the Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, the average score for correctly understanding lipreading was just over 12%. The National Deaf Children’s Society of London puts the number at over 30%. Either way, there’s a lot of guesswork and room for misinterpretation. This explains why so many deaf and hard of hearing people rely on other forms of communication and why profoundly deaf people are unlikely to attempt lip reading at all. Add masks, facial hair, poor eyesight, accents or mumbling people to the mix and lip-reading can become next to impossible.
“People are going to talk and I always have to say, ‘I hear [sounds], but I don’t understand what you’re saying,” said Jones, who starred in feature films such as 2017’s ‘Baby Driver’ and 2019’s ‘Door in the Woods’. ‘And it’s so exhausting. And I have to say [to the people I am talking to], ‘What part don’t you understand? I am deaf. I can not hear you. I cannot discern you.
Jones pointed out that people with even mild hearing loss may struggle amid the pandemic with masks in noisy areas or during conferences, for example.
“[The speaker]obligation to wear a mask, hearing-impaired people who do not know how to sign [language] will have a problem, because they will not be able to follow the speaker,” he said.
This leads to a secondary problem: the need for near-constant interpreters or communication devices to relay messages in real time.
Jones relied on the help of interpreters on the set of “Avatar 2”, where he created the film’s Na’vi sign language.
” I worked with [filmmaker James Cameron] for two years,” Jones said. “He hired me and we worked wonderfully together. And I wasn’t just working with James Cameron, but with about 5,000 hearing people on set. But I had an interpreter with me at all times. It made accessibility so much easier and made my job easier.
But – as in almost every other industry – labor shortages had an impact on the pool of performers. Technology and Zoom calls ease some of the burden. But when interpreters are needed in person, they must adhere to 6ft distancing rules and other social distancing requirements, often amid local closures. And some performers just don’t want to work in person.
A few brands have started offering clear face masks or face masks that have a clear square over the lips and mouth. But these are often more expensive than regular masks and hard to find in the N95 variety. And even consumers who get their hands on it will quickly learn that they tend to fog up.
Additionally, the hearing person would be the one who would need to wear the clear mask, so that the hearing impaired person could read their lips, making its use even more unlikely.
Jones said people trying to converse with people who are deaf or hard of hearing can take off their masks and talk remotely — or try communicating the old-fashioned way, with pen and paper.
“Or, the hearing person can learn the signs. I had to learn to read and write English [as a second language]said Jones, who comes from a hearing family. “Why can’t the hearing person I’m talking to learn sign language?” What’s wrong with learning two languages? In this way, the two worlds are connected. But many hearing people don’t have the tolerance or patience to do so.
Of course, face masks are just one of the ways the pandemic has added an extra layer of setbacks for the disability community. Keely Cat-Wells – a disability rights advocate and former actress who founded C Talent, a Los Angeles-based talent agency representing people with disabilities in the entertainment industry after she faced discrimination because of her own disabilities physical – pointed out that without Braille guides, people who are blind may not read COVID-19 tests at home. This puts them at the mercy of others reading their results. For blind people who live alone, this could mean exposing people outside their immediate home if they think they are sick and want to be tested. Or, they risk taking public transport, or a carpooling service, take a test in person, which also puts others at risk of contracting COVID-19. However, the convenience of home testing does not exist for blind people.
Similar to the use of performers, Emma Butler, founder of adapted lingerie and intimately sleepwear brandsaid some people with disabilities do not have access to personal care assistants, or PCAs, during the pandemic bdue to social distancing stipulations and quarantine mandates.
“So that means relying on the parents. Or, if you live alone, it’s really hard to get dressed,” Butler said. “So when there’s no PCA to dress in and there’s no suitable clothing, what can you wear? What can you put on yourself?
“And what we wear translates into every other part of our lives,” she continued. “For example, can we dress to impress for job interviews? What are the implications of that? People with disabilities are already less likely to be hired due to systemic ableism. on the other end who’s interviewing you thinks you look sloppy [because they can’t get dressed by themselves]. But, really, it’s not their fault because no one makes suitable clothing. Or, their PCA can’t come and dress them.
Jones agreed. His company, Sign World Studios is working to create accessible programming in sign language. The production company also works as a platform to help deaf and hard of hearing people find employment in the entertainment industry.
“We have a pool of qualified candidates who are deaf and hard of hearing and who have these skills that can be used. It’s one of my goals at Sign World Studios, to open up and fill employment opportunities for people who are deaf and hard of hearing,” Jones said. “There are deaf and hard of hearing people in life who focus on their abilities and what they do, instead of just the medical model label of deaf. These deaf people are professional; they are skilled. There’s no reason they can’t work in this industry. Hopefully we can eventually stop that label. Or the “oh, I’m so sorry you’re deaf” stigma. And just focus on the talent, regardless of who is deaf or hearing and who knows how to sign.
For now, as the pandemic drags on and face masks continue to be a part of everyday life, Jones said what he most wants people to hear is that the use of face masks inhibits the exchange of ideas between people with hearing loss. But, he added, there are effective ways communicate with people who have difficulty hearing. Just ask.
“There are so many ways to connect and cross communication,” he said. “What is important is to ask this person, what is accessible to you? What will it take to be accessible to you? And then let that person empower themselves to let you know what works for them. This is the key.