I Can’t Read Your Lips: Deafness and the Pandemic

 Mandatory masks have changed how we communicate. Yak’s Gemma Hawkins talks about the impact on the Deaf and Hard of Hearing community and offers some tips on clearer communication.

As a result of the pandemic and mandatory wearing of face masks, many Deaf and Hard of Hearing (HoH) people are being left in the dark, without access to lip-reading and other visual cues of communication.

In a world built for hearing people, the Deaf community, and those with a hearing loss, are constantly advocating for the right to be included. We ask for words to be repeated and subtitles to be turned on, we are constantly aware of our surroundings and pick event locations depending on background noise, we move table décor in restaurants to better see and communicate. We choose seats in the classroom to best suit the hearing devices and technological aides available to us, we are always listening and working hard to keep up with our hearing counterparts.

I was born with a moderate-to-severe hearing loss and wear two hearing aids. Growing up in mainstream education, I was always one of the few students in my school with a hearing loss. I was fortunate enough to have been given such amazing opportunities to engage with sign language and Deaf culture, through The Hunter Signing Choir and attending Deaf Camps. I cherished these experiences and connected strongly with Deaf culture and identity.

The Deaf community includes people with varying levels of hearing loss, ranging from mild to profound, each with their own preferred mode of communication. Some Deaf people use Auslan (Australian Sign Language), others use Signed English, spoken English or a combination of the above. Deaf people have developed a range of techniques and tools to help communicate. For many, lip-reading is a skill used to assist in verbal communication.

Before the introduction of masks, I was extremely anxious about my ability to communicate with members of the public, as I rely on lip-reading to fill the gap in verbal conversations. Working as a server in the hospitality industry, I have adopted new techniques for communicating with customers and co-workers since face masks have become mandatory in public spaces. I might ask them to speak louder or clearer, use gestures and point to items on the menu, or ask them to repeat the message.

What can the hearing community do to help break down communication barriers for Deaf people?

To help us communicate better, please speak clearly and try to minimise background noise, where possible. Learn some basic Auslan signs and practice using them in everyday conversation with your family and friends. The Auslan Signbank is a great place to get started!

Clear face masks, or masks with a clear window, are available for purchase online and allow Deaf and HoH people to lip-read. Please do not remove your mask unless we ask you to for communication purposes.

Another option is to have a pen and paper or the notes app on your phone ready to write down your message, or, you can download Google Live Transcribe, a free voice-to-text app, which uses your devices microphone to detect speech, convert it to text and displays it on the screen.

Don’t assume everyone’s needs are the same. For effective communication, follow the suggestions of the Deaf person you are speaking with. Please be patient and remember we’re all in this together.

Article by Gemma Hawkins, Yak Media Promotions Officer.

Feature image by cottonbro from Pexels.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: