Masks have saved thousands of lives during the pandemic, but they also have affected people who are deaf or hard of hearing and how they communicate with others.
Many people who are deaf or partially deaf rely on their ability to read lips. Face coverings have largely taken that away. Even with hearing aids, hearing is not at 100%, and reading lips is essential.
“My mom is actually deaf and also doesn’t sign, so she uses speech reading,” said Cara Boester, the director of clinical education for speech pathology at Illinois State University’s Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders. “So everyday tasks like going to the grocery store, someone will ask her a question and she can tell that they are talking and cause she has an implant, she can hear them saying something, but she doesn’t know what they are saying.”
Not only do masks interfere with lip reading, but they also interfere with hearing. Those who have hearing aids struggle because face coverings muffle peoples’ voices.
“We actually have a student who has a hearing loss who is a clinician that will be working with patients, and so she needs to be able to read your lips to be able to hear you,” said Boester. “She doesn’t use sign language so that’s not helpful, but she needs to be able to speech-read her professors, her clinical educators, her patients, and her peers for that matter.”
Maribeth Lartz is a professor in ISU’s Department of Special Education, preparing future teachers to work with deaf and hard of hearing students. She also is hard of hearing herself.
Lartz said regular masks that are sold at stores will knock out her hearing aids as she takes off the mask almost 80% of the time. Damaging those aids is a problem because they cost on average between $1,000 and $4,000. They also are small, making them easy to lose if one gets knocked off.
”You can go to the kind that tie behind … it’s like three-ply material, but it cuts down so much on my voice that forget it, people cannot understand if they are really relying on having to really listen,” said Lartz.
Another important part of communication for the deaf or partially deaf is seeing emotion.
Emotion can help those with hearing loss understand the tone or meaning of what someone is saying. It’s like reading in between the lines. You can tell by someone’s facial expression that they don’t like talking about a certain subject.
Clear masks—in which the person’s lips are still visible—are available online at places like ClearMask or Amazon, but prices can be high. They are in high demand nationwide.
“I haven’t treated this one this morning,” Lartz said about her clear mask. “You have to put toothpaste or shaving cream something to rub and wipe it up because otherwise it fogs up and then you can’t see.”
Jake Tanke, an incoming high school senior from Morris, has bilateral sensorineural moderate hearing loss.
“I found out about a company by the name of Safe’N’Clear. They specialize in making masks with a clear part above the lips. The problem with these masks is that in order to purchase them you need to purchase a box of 40 for $60 or a case of 400 masks for $540, and it’s not affordable to most people,” Tanke said.
Tanke also found more affordable masks for $15 to $30 on Amazon.
“Many states have implemented measures so that deaf communities can get information in a crisis where the news is constantly changing. For example, North Carolina and many other officials have taken several steps, from having a sign language interpreter at every briefing to working with television stations to include captions with each update,” said Tanke.
For more information visit the National Association for the Deaf website.
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