I hate masks. Fair enough, I don’t know anyone who actually likes wearing them but, as a deaf person, I have what feels like a million more reasons to hate them than most.
The first one is that my mask gets tangled up very easily with my hearing aid and my cochlear implant processor (which sit behind my ear), so removing them without sending both devices flying requires careful fiddling that takes more than a few seconds.
But of course, I occasionally forget to do this. “Anyone else rip their mask off when they get in to the car like they’ve just finished a disappointing surgery on Grey’s Anatomy?” someone tweeted last week.
Yup, I did after exiting my local Tesco one hot afternoon, only to give the woman sitting in the car parked opposite me the fright of her life as a suddenly airborne hearing aid ricocheted off her windscreen before landing on the tarmac. Embarrassing. (The hearing aid is still working, amazingly.)
The second – and more fundamental – reason I hate masks is because I lip-read a lot. Especially in noisy situations, I might as well be putting on a blindfold because of the loss of vital information and social cues I gain from seeing the entirety of a person’s facial expressions and movements.
But as I work from home, I only have to wear one very occasionally, so spare a thought for deaf and hard of hearing folks who have to endure mask-wearing for most of the day.
Noeleen Cunningham is Ireland’s first deaf professional make-up artist. She returned to work in July, but has since struggled with the understandably rigorous mask-wearing and PPE requirements of her trade.
“While I can lip-read the person who is getting make-up on, I have to take my mask off every time I have to talk to them so they can see my mouth, and that makes me nervous,” she says.
Her agent, Emma Farrell of EF Creative Studios, has been working with Noeleen to source clear masks so that she can at least have clients see her lips, but many supplies have run dry already. “We just received a delivery yesterday of a mask with a small window that was ordered in June, so Noeleen will be able to try this out, but first tests show that it is prone to fogging up,” says Emma.
She adds this still doesn’t help with other people wearing masks because Noeleen wouldn’t be in the position to provide clear masks for all customers as they are so expensive, so she is still unable to read their lips unless they take their mask off.
Brendan Lennon of Chime, an organisation supporting deaf and hard of hearing people, says masks have been creating “further anxiety, stress and isolation” for many parents, students, older people and workers who have emailed the organisation looking for help and support.
Lennon says Chime has been challenging the popular belief that masks are better than face shields or visors due to lack of evidence. “Face shields, while not providing a tight seal around the face similar to a face mask, prevent people touching their face and are more likely to be worn safely,” he says. “Face shields also can be used by many members of the public who are unable to wear a face mask, such as those with sensory or breathing difficulties.”
At the Holy Family School for the Deaf (post-primary) in Dublin, staff and students are using face shields and visors, so for children who use Irish Sign Language (ISL), communication shouldn’t be a problem.
However, deaf children attending mainstream schools and third-level institutions look set to endure higher levels of anxiety because masks are more likely to be the norm (at least among fellow students). Elena, a deaf first-year student at her local secondary school in Tipperary, says: “We don’t have to wear masks outside, when we can stay apart, and that’s my favourite time of the day. Outside, I’m glad I can see people’s faces.”
There may be at least one positive side to mask-wearing. Many report that being forced to draw more attention to their deafness has prompted some unexpectedly positive responses.
Sarah-Jane Moloney, a deaf teacher from Dublin, says that while it’s a “frightening time” to be deaf, “when I tell people I’m deaf, they tend to gesture more”.
“I was at the Dunnes checkout with two items, and there was a buy-two-get-one-free offer,” she says. “Pre-mask age, they [the staff] would have said it and I’d just say ‘no’ out of misunderstanding, but this time they gestured and pointed it out and I understood!”
Oliver Jeannal from France says the one upside to wearing masks for him is: “It engages a conversation about my hearing and lip-reading. Everyone is cool with it, people are nice.”
Rachel Bleakley, also from Dublin, recently booked a hairdresser appointment and “she was texting me asking how can she make it an OK experience… it’s interesting to see hearing folks acknowledge that they can do something rather than the onus being on me, the deaf person.”
However, Rachel has found it unexpectedly difficult talking to other deaf people through masks. “I always thought deaf-to-deaf communication would be grand as we have sign language, but I actually feel so restricted,” she says. “A reminder for me that sign language is a lot more than just the hands.”
Sign language linguists say that, in conjunction with hands, facial expressions and body movement are crucial building blocks of sign languages, including ISL. So obscuring the visibility of one of these three elements will naturally make things more difficult.
However, adult education teacher Alvean Jones from Dublin reports that fluent ISL users have been able to adapt to wearing masks by slowing down and exaggerating their signing, or use more finger-spelling. Some may even veer towards using Signed English (a system of sign based more on the linear structure of English).
But, as Shane Gilchrist from Belfast points out, sign language users can communicate easily from much further away than just two metres, so will often remove masks as long as they can adhere to social distancing. Having said that, he adds, members of the deaf community are by nature very tactile, so the “social distancing has been hard”.
Indeed, what about those who are deaf-blind and who require tactile communication, such as hand-over-hand ISL (ie, holding the hands of people signing to them to feel the shape, movement and location of the signs)?
It turns out mask-wearing is far less of an issue than the social distancing. Linda Tierney of St Joseph’s Centre for Adult Deaf and Deaf Blind in Stillorgan, Co Dublin, says staff at the home have been following a rigorous regime of hand-washing to ensure that the social connection and communication needs of their deaf-blind residents are not affected.
“The general atmosphere of mask-wearing did give a very clinical feel and we had to reassure our residents that it was for their protection,” says Tierney.
But the two-metre social-distancing rule creates an obvious problem when it comes to receiving visitors from outside the home.
For friends and family visiting residents who are deaf, they can come to a window and sign through the glass to their loved ones.
However, at least one deaf-blind resident, Helen Caulfield, has overcome this barrier. With the help of her friend, Yvonne Dumpleton, they devised a new system of communication based on tactile finger-spelling using a two-metre stick, with the visitor using the stick to tap out points on her hand for the letters, so Helen can communicate back through sign.
This amazing spirit of determination puts our collective hand-wringing over social distancing and mask-wearing into some perspective. I certainly won’t be grumbling any more.