No outfit is complete without a mask these days. Recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and sometimes required by businesses, face coverings have become a new social standard in many parts of America. But while masks serve as barriers to the spread of COVID-19, they’ve also become an additional barrier in communicating for those who are deaf and hard of hearing.
“The best word to describe it would be a challenge,” Brenda Schertz, a senior lecturer of American Sign Language at Cornell University, said in an ASL-interpreted phone call with NBC News. With 48 million Americans who are deaf or hard of hearing, according to a 2011 Johns Hopkins University study, the problem affects a significant part of the population on a daily level.
“Going into the grocery story or the bank or really any other public place, we are heavily dependent on facial expression and visual cues on peoples’ faces, and some of us can lip-read … and no longer do we have access to that, because everyone has masks on.”
Schertz described how, recently, she had a new washing machine delivered to her home and had intended for the delivery men to take her old washing machine with them. But there was a “communication breakdown,” she said, and because everyone was wearing masks, she couldn’t understand what they were trying to say. The old washing machine stayed put, and she had to call Lowe’s back to understand what happened.
“It was just something that was no big deal, but I had a huge communication breakdown,” Schertz said.
Similarly, Schertz described how a friend struggled to communicate at a drugstore. Because the clerk was wearing a mask, the friend didn’t understand the simple question of whether she was paying in cash or by credit.
“Just simple little things that, without a mask, we would have figured out very quickly what was needed from us. But with this mask on, we’re guessing or we have to write it down,” Schertz said. “We have no other way if we can’t hear and we can’t see the words being formed on the mouth. It’s a huge challenge … an added barrier, for sure.”
The barriers in everyday communication are often intensified when deaf people seek medical care – a longtime issue that has led to significant health impacts in the community and has become even more complicated in a pandemic.
The disparities in health education and access to care have historically led to “inadequate assessment, limited access to treatment, insufficient follow-up and poorer outcomes,” according to a 2013 article in the American Psychological Association’s Spotlight on Disability Newsletter by Lawrence Pick, a professor at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C.
Battling all these long-existing barriers is what led Anne McIntosh to create the Safe’N’Clear Communicator mask, the first medical mask approved by the Food and Drug Administration with a clear window over the mouth to facilitate better communication — something she said would improve patient care for everyone, not just those who are deaf or hard of hearing.
Continue on to NBC News to read the complete article.