Deaf and Hard of Hearing students may be more affected by current pandemic precautions.

By Sophia Hudson, ’22.

COVID-19 related stress is not uncommon during these times, as the uncertainty of what the next few weeks may look like looms over the country like a dark cloud. Between juggling which days to go school and many students quarantining due to possible exposure, the current school age generations are charting new territory. For senior Mackenzie Haines, COVID-19 brings upon a new type of stress—one that many of her peers do not understand. Having worn hearing aids from a young age, she has become used to needing different accommodations in everyday life, such as being close to the speaker, eliminating background noises as much as possible and lastly, lip reading.

“It’s really been a struggle for me, especially in places with lots of background noise. I can’t see anyone’s lips because of the masks, so a lot of my communication is cut off,” Haines said.

Speech movement reading, or lip reading, is a technique often used by the deaf and hard of hearing community, involving watching the mouth and tongue movements to “fill in the blanks” in cases of missed information during conversation. The skill is incredibly difficult and can take years of practice to use it effectively. Even then, lip reading is generally only 45% accurate when determining exact wording and content of speech. 

Because of the current mandated mask usage, speech reading has become near impossible as those who once heavily relied on this form of communication now scramble to pick up the pieces. School is one of the most difficult settings for this. 

Senior Allison Krull who was diagnosed with hearing loss at a young age and has used the assistance of a Cochlear Implant since age three has struggled navigating conversations while masks are being worn. 

“I understand completely why we all need to be safe and wear masks to stop the spread of the virus but that doesn’t take away from how incredibly hard it is for communicating,” she said.

While the struggles are apparent, there are choices that can be made in order to simplify the process of communication. One of these is the use of clear masks. UA Schools made the decision early on to promote the use of see through masks in order to best ensure the equal opportunity of education for all students. Most faculty and staff who have been asked to wear these masks have, which has been incredibly beneficial to the students in the Deaf or Hard of Hearing program at UAHS. 

In addition to lip reading, facial expression cues are essential to effective communication. This has become increasingly difficult with the use of masks as well as frustrating for those who once depended on it as said by Haines and Krull. In fact, students who had not used an interpreter previously, have requested one for class instruction, for fear that information will be missed. Anxiety levels have skyrocketed within the Deaf community.

According to Hearing Today, awareness must be a top priority, followed closely by patience. Basic steps can be taken to improve communication when speaking with someone with hearing loss while wearing masks. Dr J Blustein of New York University clarified,

“First off, it’s important to make sure the person knows that you are talking to them directly, it can be hard sometimes to tell where the sound is coming from when mouths are covered. It’s also really important that the speaker is facing the person, and knows whether or not to speak louder or slower if there is background noise…If they don’t respond it probably means the person didn’t understand what you were saying.”