Mask exclusion

With current COVID-19 guidelines, the deaf community face communication difficulties. (Photo courtesy of Tamara Merwin)

Tammy Merwin, a Cal State Fullerton alumna, arrived for her appointment at the doctor’s medical office, but nobody warned her about the obstacles she would encounter before even entering the building.

Two masked women waited on the other side of a large stand, and Merwin said she couldn’t figure out what was going on. She saw a list of names on a clipboard and questionnaires on a stand with no signs. She used sign language to say, “I’m deaf and I read lips and I have an appointment.” The two women exchanged looks of panic before one of them retrieved a piece of paper and began writing.

“All this stuff they got going,” Merwin said, “and they don’t even have a piece of paper.”

Merwin had bacterial spinal meningitis when she was two and a half years old, which caused the protective layers around her brain and spine to swell due to an infection and resulted in hearing loss. She said her mother raised her to speak and read lips. She attended mainstream school and did not learn sign language until she was 12 years old.

“She was trying to prepare me to function in the hearing world,” Merwin said. “She always told me the hearing world is not going to bow down and cater to you. You have to figure out a way to function.”

This rings especially true during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Living in a technologically advanced time has meant significant strides in communication for the deaf community. Telecommunications Relay Services allow deaf and hard-of-hearing people to communicate via telephone. Phone companies usually provide the service and are compensated by state or federal funds. Smart phones, Zoom and FaceTime also help facilitate communication. Yet, when forced to navigate the world with masks, deaf and hard-of-hearing people face communication difficulties.

“The communication barrier is a huge, huge impact,” said Jet Hurley, professor of sign language at Cal State Los Angeles and living skills teacher at Dayle McIntosh Center, an organization providing services to disabled people in Orange County.

Hurley is hard of hearing and faces barriers similar to Merwin. Hurley was interviewed using Telecommunications Relay Services with another person interpreting his signs through video. While at a routine doctor visit, Hurley communicated through an interpreter. The interpreter wore a face mask and a face shield. However, according to current state guidance, masks and face coverings can be removed “if a hearing-impaired person needs to read your lips.”

“I could understand,” Hurley said, “but when I could not see the facial expressions, I couldn’t tell if the interpreter was amused or if they fully understood.”

Just as people hear using intonation and body language, people who are deaf use facial expressions to determine the tone of a voice.

Joey Contreras, the regional director of Orange County Deaf Equal Access Foundation, in Cypress, lost his hearing at six months old due to pneumococcal meningitis. Contreras can speak, but not too clearly, but like Merwin, he depends on lip reading to communicate. Masks impede his speech and make lip reading impossible.

“I do have my share of misunderstanding, but with the mask it has happened at a higher rate,” Contreras said in an email.

There is no one-size-fits-all method for easing the communication difficulties brought on by masks for people who are deaf and hard of hearing. The change has caused Merwin to lose some of her independence and has made her fearful, Merwin said.

Hurley said that there are so many different categories of deaf, which makes it difficult to pinpoint how society can help people who are deaf and hard of hearing navigate the pandemic.

Instead of masks, Contreras suggests people use face shields when communicating and “always ask how a deaf or hard of hearing [person] would like to communicate, it’s not always the same,” he wrote.

Merwin said that people should write things down by either using their cell phones, a piece of paper or a white board.

“It’s such a simple thing, but nobody seems to think about it,” Merwin said.

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