Whatever your political or scientific stance is on face masks, one thing is certain: people who are deaf and hard-of-hearing face added challenges from the face coverings.
For one, many people who are deaf and hard-of-hearing (depending on their degree of hearing loss) rely on reading lips in order to communicate. With mask mandates in full swing across the nation — and as COVID-19 infection rates continue to rise and fall and rise again thanks to the Omicron variant — those with hearing loss are left to find new ways to effectively communicate while simultaneously navigating safety measures.
“This pandemic and masking has become a huge problem for [people who are deaf],” actor and screenwriter CJ Jones, who is deaf, told WWD in American Sign Language, through an interpreter. “Even with the clear masks, it doesn’t work, because [the masks] fog up and it is not visible enough [to see through].”
Face masks can seemingly be a pain for almost anyone. Many people, unused to having things on their faces, find them uncomfortable. Face masks also hide non-verbal cues, such as facial expressions like smiling or frowning. But they’ve also been instrumental is preventing the spread of the coronavirus. Hence, the Centers for Disease Control and Preventions declaring face masks “a critical tool in the fight against COVID-19” at the start of the pandemic.
But for the approximately 37.5 million U.S. adults (or 15 percent) who are deaf or hard-of-hearing, they pose additional challenges. On an international scale, the numbers are even higher. The World Health Organization estimates that more than 5 percent around the world, or 430 million people, have some kind of “disabling hearing loss.”
Jones, who is deaf but can recognize some sounds, uses ASL, his first language, to communicate with others in the deaf world. With hearing people, however, he often relies on his lip-reading skills.
But the art of lip-reading is a dicey one. In one experiment, conducted by the Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, the mean score for correctly understanding lip reading was just over 12 percent. London’s National Deaf Children’s Society pegs the number closer to 30 percent. Either way, there’s a lot of guesswork and room for misinterpretation involved. That explains why so many deaf and hard-of-hearing people rely on other forms of communication and why individuals who are profoundly deaf likely won’t try to lip-read at all. Add masks, facial hair, poor eyesight, accents or people who mumble to the mix and lip-reading can become near impossible.
“People will be talking and I always have to say, ‘I can hear [sounds], but I don’t understand the utterance you’re saying,’” said Jones, who has starred in such feature films as 2017’s “Baby Driver” and 2019’s “Door in the Woods.” “And it’s so straining. And I have to say [to the people I am talking to], ‘What part don’t you understand? I am deaf. I can’t hear you. I can’t discern you.”
Jones pointed out that people with even slight hearing loss may be struggling amid the pandemic with masks in noisy areas, or during lectures, for example.
“[The speaker], having to wear a mask, hard-of-hearing individuals who don’t know sign [language] will have a problem, because they won’t be able to follow the speaker,” he said.
That leads to a secondary problem: the need for near-constant interpreters or communication devices to relay messages in real time.
Jones relied on the help of interpreters while on the set of “Avatar 2,” where he created the film’s Na’vi sign language.
“I worked with [filmmaker James Cameron] for two years,” Jones said. “He had hired me and we worked beautifully together. And I was not only working with James Cameron, but about 5,000 hearing people on the set. But I had an interpreter with me at all times. It made accessibility so much easier and made my job easier.”
But — as in almost every other industry — labor shortages have impacted the pool of interpreters. Technology and Zoom calls ease some of the burden. But when interpreters are needed in person they must adhere to 6-foot distancing rules and other social-distancing requirements, often amid local lockdowns. And some interpreters are simply unwilling to work in person.
A few brands have taken to offering clear fashion face masks, or face masks that have a see-through square over the lips and mouth. But these are often more expensive than regular masks and hard to find in the N95 variety. And even consumers who do get their hands on one will quickly learn that they’re prone to fogging up.
Moreover, the hearing person would be the one who would need to wear the clear mask, in order for the hard-of-hearing person to read their lips, making the use of them even more unlikely.
Jones said people trying to converse with deaf or hard-of-hearing people can take off their masks and talk at a distance — or try to communicate the old-fashioned way, with pen and paper.
“Or, the hearing person can learn sign. I had to learn to read and write English [as a second language],” said Jones, who comes from a hearing family. “Why can’t the hearing person who I am talking with learn sign language? What’s wrong with learning two languages? This way the two worlds are bridged together. But a lot of hearing folks don’t have the tolerance or the patience to do that.”
Of course, face masks are just one way the pandemic has added an extra layer of setbacks for the disabilities community. Keely Cat-Wells — a disability rights advocate and former actor who founded C Talent, a Los Angeles-based talent agency representing disabled individuals in the entertainment industry after facing discrimination over her own physical disabilities — pointed out that without Braille guides, blind people can’t read at-home COVID-19 tests. This puts them at the mercy of others reading their results. For blind people who live alone, it could mean exposing people outside of their immediate home if they think they’re sick and want to take a test. Or, they risk taking public transit, or a ride-sharing service, to take a test in person, which also puts others at risk of contracting COVID-19. Either way, the convenience of at-home tests doesn’t exist for blind people.
Similar to the use of interpreters, Emma Butler, founder of adaptive lingerie and sleepwear brand Intimately, said some people with disabilities don’t have access to personal care assistants, or PCAs, during the pandemic because of social-distancing stipulations and quarantine mandates.
“So that means relying on parents. Or, if you live alone, it’s very difficult to get dressed,” Butler said. “So, when there’s no PCAs to get dressed and there’s no adaptive apparel involved, what can you wear? What can you put on by yourself?
“And what we wear translates to all other parts of our life,” she continued. “Like, can we dress to impress for job interviews? What are the implications of that? Disabled people are already less likely to be hired because of systemic ableism. Then, maybe the person on the other end interviewing you thinks you look sloppy [because they can’t get dressed by themselves]. But, really, it’s not their fault because nobody is making adaptive apparel. Or, their PCA can’t come in to dress them.”
Jones agreed. His firm, Sign World Studios, works to create accessible sign language programming. The production company also functions as a platform to help deaf and hard-of-hearing people find jobs in the entertainment industry.
“We have a pool of qualified applicants who are deaf and hard-of-hearing that have these skills that can be employed. That’s one of my goals in Sign World Studios, to open and bridge employment opportunities for deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals,” Jones said. “There are deaf and hard-of-hearing people in life who are focusing on their capabilities and what they’re doing, instead of just the medical-model label of deaf. These deaf individuals are professional; they’re qualified. There’s no reason why they can’t work in this industry. Hopefully, we can just stop that label eventually. Or the stigma of, ‘oh, I’m so sorry you’re deaf.’ And just focus on the talent, regardless of who’s deaf or hearing and who can sign.”
For now, as the pandemic drags on and face masks continue to be part of daily life, Jones said what he wants most for hearing people to understand is that using face masks inhibits the exchange of ideas between people with hearing loss. But, he added, there are ways to effectively communicate with individuals who have trouble hearing. You just have to ask.
“There are so many ways that communication can be bridged and come across,” he said. “What’s important is to ask that individual, what is accessible for you? What will it take to be accessible for you? And then letting that individual empower themselves to let you know what works for them. That’s the key.”