Communication barriers during COVID-19

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While masks are intended to help slow the spread of the virus, they’ve started to create communication problems for those who are deaf or hard of hearing. Wearing a mask can hide facial cues, emotions, and prevent lip reading. But not everyone who is deaf or hard of hearing lip-reads and when they do only 35% to 40% is understood on the lips.

Laura Siegel from the Vermont Association of the Deaf says, “People rely on visual cues or facial expression to be able to understand in communication. So it is not all lip-reading, we don’t lip read at one hundred percent, no one does.”

Most people who are deaf or hard of hearing use American Sign Language to communicate. One of the major grammatical markers of ASL is how the lower half of the face is shown. It involves different visual representations of nose, cheeks, lips, chin, and jaw position. That being said, face masks take away cues that deaf or hard of hearing people need for decoding information.

Siegel said when she goes into a store or restaurant, she’ll let employees know she is deaf but they don’t always try to find options to make things easier for her and help communicate.

She said, “It is very frustrating because they continue to speak to you. It’s like, it is not my fault I am deaf, but they make me feel that way.”

Brittany Dorn from the Vermont Deaf and Hard of Hearing Program at Nine East Network, says one way to help, is to wear a clear mask.

“The benefit to these is that you get the lip-reading cues and you get back a little bit of the facial cues”, says Dorn.

Reign Vermont is a local company that makes a clear mask with a nose guard and chin pleat. Dorn says Nine East Network has been ordering these masks so they are ready for the fall.

Allen Winfree from Essex Junction says he went to a store with his mask on and when he went to check out the cashier was behind Plexiglas. The cashier had a mask on as well and started talking to him. He tried to explain he was deaf and asked if they could pull their mask down. Winfree was also standing six feet away but the cashier still refused to lower their mask so he could understand them.

He doesn’t appear to be the only one. There were several Facebook comments from people in the deaf community who shared very similar stories. One even said this makes them feel isolated and not want to leave the house.

Laura Siegel recommends stores provide a list of yes or no questions to help with communication.

“If there was a standardized list of questions, they could just show that to the deaf or hard of hearing person and we could easily answer yes or no, they could point to the question”, said Siegel

Siegel also wants there to be more awareness and compassion around this issue. If you don’t feel comfortable removing your mask you can also use your phone to type out a message to communicate. This will help create less stress and anxiety.

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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