Now that wearing masks in public is pervasive—and mandatory in shared indoor spaces— most have adapted to the accompanying challenges. It can be difficult to breath, it’s hot, you might experience skin irritations, and so on. For community members who are Deaf and hard of hearing, masks have created communication challenges, animpediment that hearing people fail to consider.
Emmah Artino, an ASL interpreter and her husband, Joey Artino, who is Deaf, have had to cope with mask wearing. Joey’s mask has the phrase “I am Deaf” printed on it to let people know that he is not ignoring them when they try to speak to him in a store. Without facial cues, it can be hard for people to get his attention. “I’ve had some people try to talk to me when I couldn’t see them,” Joey explains. “Then, when I turn around and they see my mask, they’re more friendly.”
Watch your tone
Unfortunately, most masks remove tone, which is fundamental to communication for people in the Deaf community. Hearing the inflection in someone’s voice is an incredibly important part of understanding someone’s meaning, from sarcasm and humor to aggression and sadness. There are times when tone can make all the difference in what you glean from a conversation. For people who are Deaf or hard of hearing, facial expressions help fill in the gaps left by not hearing someone’s tone. With masks, facial expressions are difficult to interpret.
Emmah’s father is also profoundly Deaf and faces this problem while watching the news. “The automatic captioning just doesn’t capture everything. Plus the reporter has a mask on and we can’t hear the tone. It just leaves a lot of pieces missing in the communication,” Emmah explains.
“You should also be willing to learn,” Joey adds. “Patience and understanding goes a long way.” It’s also important to not assume that anyone who is Deaf can read lips. “Even the hard of hearing people that do read lips really only capture about 30 percent of information, and then they fill in the gaps, assuming what’s being said,” Emmah says. “The biggest thing is not to exaggerate expressions, say ‘read my lips’ or to take your mask off. That’s not helpful. Just take a big breath and think about it. What are some other ways to communicate?”
Other means of communication include typing something on your phone or jotting a note down on a piece of paper with a combination of gestures to clarify communication. Emmah also points out that hearing people sometimes don’t make eye contact with each other because we aren’t as reliant on expressions, but eye contact is very helpful in communication with Deaf individuals.
“Hearing people typically talk at each other and look elsewhere, but Deaf people need that eye contact,” Emmah says.
Help in a hearing world
Make communication easier by using a clear face shield or a traditional mask with a clear window insert, and take the time to learn some basic ASL. Overall, for hearing people, it’s about awareness and being prepared to step outside your comfort zone with communication.
“Deaf people live in a hearing world,” Emmah points out. “They encounter hearing people every day, but hearing people don’t encounter Deaf people very often. Deaf people know what to do [when it comes to communication]. They may have a pen and paper ready; Joey’s got a notepad on his phone that he uses. It’s just a matter of having patience, leaving your mask on, and smiling.”