Mask-wearing causes deaf, hard-of-hearing individuals to adapt

By Liz Gremer, Staff Writer

While the COVID-19 pandemic has been a difficult time for society as a whole, certain groups have been experiencing less known challenges. In particular, deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals have had to adjust to living in a world where communication has changed in a major way. 

With mask wearing now a norm in day-to-day life, the ability to read lips became nearly impossible and has changed the way Deaf people interact with hearing individuals.

Susan Dramin-Weiss, who teaches ASL in the speech and hearing science department, is deaf. She said she has found it difficult to communicate with hearing individuals during the pandemic.

“It is still difficult to understand with the masks on because facial expressions are so crucial to the language,” Dramin-Weiss said. “It’s very difficult to get all those non-manuals and understand. There’s a lot of mouth movements and facial expressions in general that are so crucial to the language, and with the masks it’s very difficult.”

Deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals have had to get creative with ways to communicate. Briefly pulling down masks and utilizing messaging technology have been popular methods throughout the deaf community.

“The majority of the deaf people are experiencing the same thing that I am,” Dramin-Weiss said. “They have to ask people to remove their masks so they’re able to see the visual communication that takes place on the face. That’s pretty much the consensus. It has really been a struggle for the deaf community when it comes to communication.” 

Kaley Graves, first-year graduate student in AHS, was diagnosed with a hearing impairment at 18 months old and utilizes hearing aids. Similar to Dramin-Weiss, she has found that many hearing individuals have been accommodating to the different forms of communication she now practices.

“I will be the first person to speak up and say that ‘Hey, I have hearing aids in both ears, and it is difficult for me to understand you – I apologize!’” Graves said. “I appreciate the effort that people make to accommodate me, despite this being such an uncertain time and safety rules changing constantly. I would also suggest having some compassion.”

In order to help accommodate deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals, the University provides the professors of these students clear masks through a designated DRES accommodation, Graves said. 

Closed captioning and transcripts on Zoom and videos have been provided for students among other COVID-specific accommodations. Additionally, many professors in the SHS department wear clear masks to accommodate the needs of their students.

While the clear mask accommodation for professors has been helpful, students in class with deaf and hard-of -hearing individuals have not been taken into account. Not being able to see what peers say in the classroom has been a challenge, Graves said.

“Students in classes with a deaf or hearing-impaired classmate are left to supply their own clear mask or continue wearing the masks that they have,” she said. “When the visual cues are taken away, that makes it incredibly difficult for me to understand conversation or engage in classroom discussions. Clear masks aren’t as readily available and are usually more costly than a standard blue surgical mask or a cloth mask. I do feel that more could be done, but I am entirely unsure as to what that is.”

Dramin-Weiss has also found the clear mask option to not be feasible for her class, and she continues to teach through Zoom. Until classes can be taught in person without required mask wearing, Dramin-Weiss plans to continue utilizing Zoom.

“I love teaching in person,” she said. “I have a passion for that. I would just like to see us get back to normal and just be able to teach without masks. As the situation is right now, with the mask requirement, I don’t think in-person is the best option.”

Until the state of the pandemic improves and classes can resume without mask wearing, there are measures that hearing individuals can take in order to better communicate with deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals.

“The most basic thing I can think of to help support those who need assistance is to learn sign,” said Lindsey Anderson, sophomore in AHS.  “With technology access, I think it’s something everyone should learn the basics of. Hearing individuals can learn ASL, but deaf individuals clearly can’t learn to hear, so it is a courtesy and generally helpful in life.”

Although communication has been a struggle for deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals during this time, the general safety of the community is the current priority, Graves said.

“As someone who prefers spoken communication, wearing a mask is frustrating, but I am very willing to do it for my safety as well as others,” Graves said. “A slight hindrance in communication isn’t as big of a concern to me in comparison to potentially contracting COVID-19 and passing it to someone else.”

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