Ashley Lawrence is a 21 year old college student who has created DHH friendly masks to combat the coronavirus.
University High School

Opinion: Face masks and the DHH community

As the coronavirus pandemic plagues virtually every country in the world, individuals from all over the globe face a plethora of challenges as they adjust to the ever-changing situation. In order to combat the spread of the virus, health officials have urged individuals to wear masks and to social distance.

Although these precautions are very much vital to the recovery of the US and to countries all over the world, unfortunately, it still contributes to the creation of a new set of obstacles in the DHH community.

The most effective way for individuals from the DHH community to communicate is through the use of a visual sign language. A huge misconception about these languages is that they rely solely on the use of hand gestures, however, this is simply not true.

Just as traditional languages are multidimensional, using grammar, inflections, and changes in tone to convey a message, sign languages are multidimensional as well. Almost all sign languages rely heavily on body language, facial expressions, visual cues, and much more to get their message across. Even a tiny change in facial expressions can convey an entirely different message and tone.

As stated by Sharon Hill, the director of the American Sign Language interpreting program at the University of Houston, “Language is grammar — it’s sentence structure, and so, the way that individuals who communicate with a visual mode of communication convey grammar, is on the face.”

Due to the importance of facial cues in the signing of visual languages, many members of the DHH community are not able to effectively communicate while wearing masks. As explained by Lauren Surgue, a member of the DHH community, in an interview with CNN, “Lip reading has been more difficult because you don’t want people to take off their masks or other face coverings for protection. But when you can’t see their lips, it’s extremely difficult to know what they’re saying. I’ve had to find new ways to communicate even before COVID-19, but the pandemic has thrown new hurdles in our way.”

To put it into the context of those not a part of the community, imagine sending a text. Take for example- “What’s wrong with you?” There are several ways that one can interpret this. One can interpret it as a joke with a casual and familiar tone, or, one could interpret it as an accusation with a threatening tone. This is why we tend to use emojis. Emojis can be used to establish tone while texting, therefore increasing the probability of accurate communication.

Now imagine only being able to talk to your friend through text with no emojis, there is a much higher probability of misunderstandings and misinterpretations. Now imagine further, that you send all the words, but the grammar is all jumbled up, would you still be able to get your point across effectively? Probably not.

Members of the DHH community experience this, when they wear face masks, except its severity is increased tenfold. Messages are extremely hard, if not impossible, to get across. DHH individuals are put into a difficult situation where they must compromise their ability to communicate, for their own safety and the safety of others. In addition, the stifling of their communication poses a more severe problem when it comes to the contraction of COVID-19.  

Members of the DHH community are just as probable to contract the coronavirus as any other individual. However, due to both the language barrier as well as disadvantages that arise from wearing face masks, once sick, DHH individuals face an even greater deal of challenges.

Communication is one of the most vital elements to receive competent medical treatment as well as a speedy recovery. So with a communication barrier, the situation becomes increasingly complicated.

Although some medical centers use interpreters, due to the fact that they are usually required to wear a mask, communication is still inhibited. Even if interpreters are availed of virtually, poor connection and technical difficulties still place DHH members at a disadvantage.

As Sharon Hill described in an interview with Craig Cohen, the host of Houston Matters, “Imagine now you’re in this situation where you’ve been hospitalized with COVID-19. Everyone around you is wearing masks. You have no idea who is talking or what the issue is about. And then the interpreter on the screen freezes. The level of anxiety, fear, isolation — it’s compounded.”  

Although the requirement of face masks has put members of the DHH community at a major disadvantage, they still have some options.

The community has started making DHH masks that use a piece of transparent material to allow facial expressions to remain visible. These masks allow individuals from the DHH community to better communicate, as well as understand others by in some cases, lipreading, while still taking precautions for their safety.

The CDC has approved the use of clear face masks for the DHH community. However, there are still issues with these masks.

Even if members of the DHH community find or make safe DHH masks to wear, in order to communicate with individuals outside the community, non-DHH individuals must wear these masks too. Many DHH members rely on lip-reading, and this is simply not possible to do with traditional masks.

Although face masks should most definitely be mandated to combat the virus, the DHH community is not accommodated by the general public, and many governments have not even recognized the problems that they face during these difficult times. Members of the DHH community are left alienated, with a dilemma that most individuals have not even recognized as a valid issue.