Masks Cause Misinterpretations for Deaf People

[Illustration of people wearing masks.]

Masks protect people from COVID; however, masks became a nightmare for D/deaf people because they had to deal with communicating when people’s faces were half covered. Deaf people rely on reading facial expressions including eye contact and lip reading to be able to understand, but the masks cover and hide the facial expressions. I’ve heard several stories of Deaf people misinterpreting what the person said because of the masks. 

There are solutions on how to deal with the communication barrier for D/deaf people. One of the solutions is hearing people can wear transparent masks that allow D/deaf people to read facial expressions while the people wearing the mask are keeping themselves protected. Transparent masks fit nicely on the face  ideal for DHH people because it eliminates one of the barriers and allows for lipreading. Lipreading is a helpful assistance to comprehending the words being said. Without the ability to read lips, the voice and speech sounds muffled, which makes it harder to understand. These kinds of masks help with lipreading, but also facial expressions. American Sign Language has so many expressions for example, the sign for horrible and awful could look the same without seeing the facial expressions. To read more about Hit of COVID – Communication Barriers For the Deaf/Hard of Hearing and How to Handle It. Believe it or not, even hearing people can struggle when communicating with each other with masks on. The reasons for this are masks muffles the sound from getting across to the receiver. This becomes harder when there is a lot of background noise or the person is wearing double masks. Deaf people have shared that since the mandate to wear masks is more relaxed, it makes communication way easier. D/deaf people are able to read facial expressions and read lips resulting in less misinterpretations and miscommunications. In addition, D/deaf people are able to read people’s facial expressions a lot easier. Below are several examples that D/deaf people shared about masks.

One deaf person shares his experience where he struggled understanding the clients at his work.

He shared, “A major aspect of my work is I have to communicate with clients. When I ask for their name, sometimes I understand the name is but then I spelled their name wrong or put down a different name or if they tried to explain to me a problem and they speak too soft or they will stutter, it becomes difficult to understand especially when people are wearing masks. 

There was one time I went to a mechanical shop to fix my car and I had to get my tires aligned. I was asking for the price of how much it was to align the tires but the person was wearing a mask and explained to me the pricing. At first I thought I understood and walked away, but then I went back to ask them to repeat to me again because I actually did not really understand what the person said.” 

 

Even myself have trouble understanding people when they wear masks. I have several experiences I would like to share.

“Just recently, I was curious and saw a couple open houses. One of the house I looked at, the realtor had her mask on. I partially was able to understand her. Firstly, she talked a bit fast and although, there was no background noise, there was still echo in the house. Several times, I had to ask her to repeat herself. The next house I looked at, the realtor did not wear a mask. Although there was echo in the house, I was able to understand the realtor a lot better because I was able to see his whole face; therefore reading his facial expressions, lip reading, and body language. It makes a big difference when people wear and not wear their masks.

Another example is when I went to the doctor’s. I completely misheard her when she was explaining to me about the step-by-step instructions; therefore causing harm to my body. She was wearing a mask and I thought I understood her, but I actually did not. This is an example where your life is put as risk because of misinterpreting what the doctor said.

When I am at work, sometimes I will mishear what my colleagues said when they have mask on, so in situations like those, I would ask them to repeat or reiterate what they said to make sure I fully understand them 100%.

It is definitely harder to converse with people who have accents. I am not able to read lips to begin with, I cannot imagine trying to understand someone who has mild to strong accents. Thank goodness for the technology and app that is readily available to us to easier communicate with people.”

 

Megan Clancy, Start ASL instructor, shares her experience when people wear masks versus when people do not wear masks.

“Amid the COVID pandemic, it’s been difficult for me to communicate with hearing people wearing masks.  I lip read and my cochlear implants help me understand people, but I still rely on facial expressions for communication.  Restaurants can be hard since waiters are often masked, and it’s dreadful at the doctors.  I feel like I had to depend on writing if I have no one to interpret for me.  However, one of my doctors was kind enough to buy a clear mask for himself so he can communicate with me more easily.  My audiologist at Rady Children’s wears a clear mask which helps me during MAPping sessions for my cochlear implants which I’m thankful for.  It’s hard to understand family members sometimes when they wear masks like at the store, etc since we don’t really communicate in pure ASL–we use home signs and Signed Exact English version.  Also I feel bad if I misunderstand someone since of their masks blocking their faces.  I’m thankful for anyone who knows ASL since this makes the situation a bit easier.  It’s definitely hard for me to know if someone is happy or sad if they wear a mask since I can’t always identify their tone, you know?  I truly hope we won’t have to wear masks forever.”
A Deaf guy shared during a social, “I went to the DMV and the guy working at DMV pointed towards an area. That point was directed towards the waiting room, so I went to sit and waited patiently. Time went by and no one called me. Soon DMV was about to close, so the I went up to person and asked about my appointment again. The worker actually instructed me to go to another kiosk to talk with a woman. I totally misinterpreted the worker and thought I had to sit and wait for my turn when really I was supposed to go to another window. I wasted time by sitting at the waiting area because of a misinterpretation. I was so happy now that masks are no longer being required. Now the communication with just not only D/deaf people but also with hearing people makes conversing much each easier! “
These examples show that masks caused a huge struggle and challenge for D/deaf people. It is already hard enough with COVID, but masks does not make it any easier for D/deaf people. There were numerous times D/deaf people cannot catch or guessed what the hearing person said. Thankfully, masks mandate is lifting, which opens up the communication and making it much easier to converse with people. Also, there are people who are kind to remove their masks when communicating with D/deaf because they understand how hard it is to understand with masks on. Hopefully, we will not have to go back to wearing masks again.
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