Masks pose challenges for the Deaf Community.
Now that wearing masks in public is pervasive— and mandatory in shared indoor spaces— most have adapted to the accompanying hurdles. For community members who are Deaf and hard of hearing (HH), masks have created communication challenges, an obstacle that hearing people often fail to consider.
Certified ASL interpreter Emmah Artino and her Deaf husband, Joey Artino, have had to adjust to communicating while wearing masks. Joey’s mask has the phrase “I am Deaf” printed on it so that people know that he is not ignoring them when they try to speak to him in a store. With facial cues obscured by masks, 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 friendlier.”
Watch your tone
Unfortunately, most masks hide facial expressions and mute tone, which are fundamental to communication for people in the Deaf community. Hearing the inflection in someone’s voice and observing their facial expressions— sad, surprised, annoyed— are incredibly important aspects of communication, especially for the Deaf and hard of hearing (DHH). There are times when tone can make all the difference in what you glean from a conversation. For people who are DHH, facial expressions help fill in the gaps left by not hearing someone’s tone, but with masks, those facial cues are nearly impossible to interpret.
The same is true of automatic closed captioning on television and YouTube. Emmah’s father is profoundly Deaf and faces this problem while watching the news. Emmah explains, “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.”
“You should also be willing to learn [about the hurdles the DHH community face],” Joey adds. “Patience and understanding go a long way.”
It’s also important to never assume that those who are 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 [using tone and facial expressions], 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. 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
One avenue for making communication easier is to use a clear face shield or a traditional mask with a clear window insert so that those who are DHH can see your facial expressions and read your lips. While those are not always readily available, one fail-safe way to communicate is to take the time to learn some basic ASL. Online classes are available through Deaf Services Center NW Ohio, and there are multiple websites and programs that teach basic ASL (even some for kids). Or begin by following someone on Instagram or TikTok who is DHH or a certified interpreter. Just beware of those who are hearing and using (incorrect) sign language as a way to garner fame; cultural appropriation exists within the Deaf community as well.
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.”