Updated: Jun 22, 2021
Throughout the majority of 2020, wearing a mask anytime you leave the house has been the norm to stop the spread of COVID-19. While research proves masks work and are crucial to help curb the virus, I can’t help but think about a college professor I once had who largely relied on lipreading to communicate with her students. How is she handling her classroom now that her students’ lips are covered with masks? And how many others are facing the same struggle by living in a world where everyone has half their face hidden?
For many in the deaf and hard of hearing community (which makes up over 5% of the world’s population), masks have become an additional barrier to their daily struggle to communicate with the hearing world. Not only do masks make lipreading impossible, but they also cover up familiar facial expressions and muffle speech, making comprehension even more difficult.
This can be particularly terrifying during a pandemic, where a trip to the hospital can lead to confusion and miscommunication between medical staff and patients who are deaf.
But it also creates difficulties in our classrooms. Students who are hard of hearing or communicate in ways that rely on more than mere verbal cues are at a disadvantage during this time because masks prevent them from learning in the way that best suits their needs. Not to mention the other issues that have arisen when it comes to safely educating children during the pandemic.
For students who are already at risk for exclusion, this is another challenge that will continue to harm their right to an equitable and inclusive education.
But these students aren’t the only ones who are struggling. Speechreading and viewing facial expressions are a large part of processing for everyone, especially people who are still developing communication skills or learning English as a second language.
Educators, medical staff, and others need to do their part to make our communities as safe and inclusive as possible during this time.
And some are definitely taking the extra step. Leslie Bailey, a teacher in Louisiana, made clear face masks for her school, where the majority of students are hard of hearing. Bailey said she knew the masks would be necessary for her school because “children with hearing loss, including those who are deaf or hard of hearing, can struggle with understanding sign language if they’re unable to read lips.” An added bonus is that now everyone can see each other’s smiles throughout the busy school days.
So, how can you be inclusive while still doing your part to be safe? Buy a clear mask! There are FDA approved clear face masks available right now. And if that’s not in your budget, then check out these suggestions for how to communicate with people who are deaf and hard of hearing, such as using your phone or learning basic American Sign Language (ASL).
Clear masks and other alternative forms of communication are a necessity to make inclusion a reality during the pandemic, so it’s crucial we start to make those the norm. If we make inclusion a priority throughout COVID-19, then it will continue to remain a priority afterward.
Kayla Kingston is the Communications Specialist for MCIE. A recent graduate of the University of Dayton, she loves reading, writing, and supporting all things inclusion.