Skip to content

I’m Deaf. When Mask-Wearing Came Along, I Had To Rebuild My World

August 21, 2020

Since mask-wearing began, my world has disappeared. I was born partially deaf, and masks prevent me from lipreading and using facial cues to communicate.

I’m not alone. Over 460 million people worldwide have disabling hearing loss according to the World Health Organization. So how are people who are d/Deaf (lower case refers to the physical condition of deafness, capital D refers to the Deaf community) or hard of hearing surviving mask mandates?

It also makes me wonder, is my mask less safe because of my disability?

The most common mask on the market right now is the ear band, with loops to slip over ears. But not everyone has two ears and some people who are hard of hearing also have difficulty wearing these masks. “They get tangled up in the tubes of my hearing aid,” said Jannie Marshall in Ohio, retired from providing services to developmentally disabled adults. “It’s hell to put masks on, wear them, take them off with hearing aids,” said Meg Day, a poet and assistant professor at Franklin Marshall College in Pennsylvania. “Your hearing aids go flying if you’re not careful … The [mask] elastic has to sit perfectly to not interfere with the hearing aid’s microphone.”

You can attach masks with paperclips or even plastic toys in the back of the head. But ear band masks are not designed to be worn this way, and the fit is very tight, creating tension and headaches. When I tried them, the paperclips got caught in my hair.

The best solution I found are “ear-savers,” strips with toggles to attach mask loops, originally designed for essential workers. It’s not a perfect solution, or a fast one. I have to look in a mirror to ensure the best fit. I have to delegate all door-answering – anything that requires a mask quickly – to my partner, who is hearing. Most of us already panic at unannounced visits during the pandemic, but for people who are hard of hearing, the extra stress is a considerable burden.

The likelihood of me not understanding a masked stranger is high. Callie Adair, a graduate student in social work, told me that “masks make everyone sound more muffled, so even my good hearing days become bad hearing days if I have to go out”.

Evan Adair, an MBA student and Callie’s spouse, says that masks “turned my life around 180 degrees”. Both Callie and Evan use smartphone notepad features to help communicate with strangers, but not everyone has this technology – or the patience to use it.

“People get frustrated because they’re unprepared to communicate via text or paper and pen, so they remove their mask. It’s scary,” Day said. “Every encounter is charged.”

A common occurrence in my experience is that people don’t assume a young-looking person could be hard of hearing. And when I don’t respond, they respond in anger.

“Maintaining social distancing in stores is hard when we can’t hear you coming up behind us,” Callie Adair said. Hearing strangers can mistake a d/Deaf or hard of hearing person’s silence for permission to enter their space.

To get a head start on those situations, I purchased buttons on Etsy with messages such as: Your mask prevents me from reading your lips. Please be patient. But I do worry about issues of safety and vulnerability in announcing my disability to strangers, including the potential for mistreatment, even abuse. d/Deaf and hard of hearing people are more likely than hearing people to be sexually assaulted or experience other violence.

Along with buttons, there is now a market on Etsy for “hearing aid masks” that wrap or tie around the head. One seller, when I reached out to her, told me: “You are the exact reason I have been custom-making masks.”

There are also several kinds and brands of masks with see-through centers, designed to assist in lipreading and American Sign Language (ASL utilizes more than just the hands but the entire body, including facial expressions).

These masks are not without issues. “They fogged up immediately and stuck to your lips and looked, well, kind of scary,” Day said about a vinyl mask. Day prefers ClearMask, a deaf-cofounded company, whose masks are entirely clear, have straps, and a foam seal.

And although some workers are taking the initiative on their own to wear masks with clear centers to assist people, they’re in the minority. I’ve never seen a mask like that in real life – not on retail workers in my neighborhood, not on medical personnel.

“It’s kind of pointless that I have an entire box of these [clear masks] when I’m not the one who needs to be wearing them,” Day said. “My dentist needs a box and my colleagues need a box. Other folks need to play a part in providing access.”

“One thing I really wish the hearing society would know and understand is that communication difficulty increased during the pandemic, and there is nothing we can do to fix it,” Evan Adair said.

As a hard of hearing person, I have never felt more lonely than during mask-mandates. At the same time, I believe hearing people are realizing how much we all rely on facial, physical and other cues to get by. “My heart goes out to everyone who is restricted now and is suffering in isolation. I’m accustomed to it,” Marshall said.

A good reminder for hearing people at all times, not only during a pandemic, is don’t just use your voice to announce your presence – wave, make eye contact. Be open to communicating in different ways with strangers. Realize that not everyone may be exactly like you. And maybe ask your doctors, teachers or co-workers to utilize clear masks or similar products.

When the pandemic is controlled, and the masks come off, I hope hearing people remember how much of the world revolves around community and communicating. I hope they still consider us, who deserve to be heard.

No comments yet

What are you thinking?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: