The now mandatory masks make lip reading, facial cues impossible
Toronto Star, July 9, 2020
For the deaf and hard of hearing, COVID-19 adds extra challenges for communicating in public.
We’ve all been told to avoid touching our face to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus. But for Thinaja Nadarajah, this public health advice is complicated. Nadarajah is deaf and American Sign Language is her first language.
“There’s a lot of touching of the face when signing,” she says. “We often communicate by touch, like tapping on the shoulder to get someone’s attention.”
Nadarajah is used to navigating what she calls the “hearing community” when she’s out and about. “Sometimes you can catch things on their lips and kind of piece together what they’re saying,” she says. But with COVID-19 and the mandatory wearing of masks by most public-facing employees, that opportunity is gone. “With a mask, I don’t see anything.”
Nadarajah is just one of many members of the deaf community who face additional barriers in communication during COVID-19. While statistics on deaf Canadians are hard to collect due to limitations in surveys and census data, the Canadian Association of the Deaf estimates that there are roughly 357,000 profoundly deaf and deafened Canadians.
While Nadarajah might have passed a pen and paper back and forth to write messages with sales staff and others in the hearing community, that option is no longer available due to the chances of spreading the virus. Instead, Nadarajah uses her phone to type messages.
She recalls a recent visit to Costco’s garden centre in her hometown of Mississauga. A fellow customer helped her find what she was looking for. “One of the customers actually used their phone to communicate with me,” she says. “They typed on their phone, I read it and then I answered on my phone. We just showed phones back and forth.” It’s an example of how retail workers and deaf customers can interact with each other.
Wissam Constantin is the vice-president of the Canadian Association of the Deaf. He acts as an advocate for the deaf community and encourages retailers, restaurant workers and other front-line employees to be especially mindful of the deaf and hard of hearing at this time.
While some deaf individuals, like Nadarajah, are comfortable typing on their phones to communicate, Constantin says everyone has their own preferences and abilities.
“There’s such diversity in the deaf community,” he says. “The customer will be able to tell them how best to communicate with them. It’s important that workers in the hearing community listen and have an open mind.”
Restaurants and grocery stores can equip themselves with a range of tools and apps to help facilitate communication with the deaf community. It could be as simple as a cashier having a pen and paper on hand so that someone wishing to write messages can do so without having to pass materials back and forth.
Another popular option are smartphone apps that create live transcriptions of speech, like Otter.ai. The app is free, so service workers can download it in advance for quicker, smoother conversations.
With a range of tools on hand, workers can then let those in the deaf community direct the method of communication.
“No one should assume that the deaf individual has these apps and ask, ‘Oh, do you have an app that will transcribe what I’m saying?’ That’s really not the best approach,” says Constantin. “If they offer it to you, that is more respectful.”
One of the most useful adaptations to COVID-19 that Nadarajah has discovered are face masks with clear inserts. “That’s been a huge benefit for the deaf and hard of hearing community, especially for those who depend solely on lip reading,” she says.
Nadarajah is employed as a program assistant at Silent Voice, a non-profit organization that serves the deaf community through programs like mentorships, summer camps, meetups and family communication seminars. Silent Voice has received donations of clear masks and Nadarajah hopes the hearing community will use them too.
“It’s more beneficial for hearing people to have them as opposed to the deaf people because then the deaf people would be able to catch what they’re saying on their lips,” she says.
Those who suffer from milder forms of hearing loss also face difficulties with masks and Plexiglas shields muffling and blocking speech from service workers. John Biggs is a radio host and musician who has hearing loss with certain frequencies.
“I have a little trouble when there’s a Plexiglas shield,” Biggs says. “I’m almost trying to go around the corner with shields to hear a little bit better.”
Victoria Stone, an audiologist at Hearing Solutions, says, “Physical distancing can also be a challenge because the instinct for somebody who has hearing loss is to move closer and that’s not always appropriate.”
Stone says video meetings can benefit those with hearing loss since facial expressions fill in some gaps of communication, but speech from a video conference is harder to hear than live speech.
New technology, like Bluetooth-enabled hearing aids that stream directly from a computer, phone or television, does allow for improved transmission of audio.
Stone believes that it is the responsibility of retailers to support all members of the community they serve. And while having adequate signage, pens and paper, apps and clear face masks all help, Nadarajah hopes that, above all, service workers can be patient with members of the deaf community. “There’s going to be more time necessary to communicate,” she says.
Constantin says that adapting services and being mindful of the deaf community will help retailers support other marginalized customers, too.
“Education and awareness for the hearing community doesn’t just mean that it’s going to benefit only the deaf community. It will benefit other groups of individuals, like the blind and deaf-blind, as well.”