Guest columnist: Patience and awareness can help deaf community face problems with masks
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As we reflect on an extraordinary year, my thoughts turn not only to the uncle I lost to Covid but also to a group of people that form a significant part of the fabric of our society – the deaf community.
I’m not just thinking of the profoundly deaf, of course. Deafness comes in many forms including those deaf from birth, deafness acquired through illness or accident, and progressive age-related deafness.
This past year has brought every one our own personal challenges that none could have foreseen. On top of the threat of the virus, deaf people have another complication thrown into the mix: face masks.
Having a conversation with someone wearing a face covering is, to me and others with partial hearing loss, like having water in your ear after swimming and waiting for it to ‘pop’. But it is not only the sound quality that has deteriorated. Now I can no longer see the lip patterns which give me the best hints about what is being said. My verbal, visual and social cues are masked in a fog of miscommunication.
How I am going to handle this encounter?
Last July, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon announced that face coverings were to be mandatory. As a 31-year-old with hearing loss since birth, the prospect of partly hidden faces fills me with anxiety.
The vital cues of communication which I rely on daily – lip-reading and facial expressions – are obscured.
Prior to the pandemic, with my hair covering both my hearing aids and facing the person I’m speaking to, if you did not know me, you probably would not realise I have a hearing loss. The appearance of face coverings, for me, brought a sudden loss of control.
Lip-reading has always been my access route to the world of fluent conversation. Now, that avenue is closed.
The deaf and hearing worlds have always orbited each other in wary coexistence, but in the pandemic they were drifting further apart. I consider myself to be in a ‘grey area’ between the two communities. British Sign Language is not my first language, as it is for the profoundly deaf – although I do have some knowledge of it – yet because I have a hearing loss, I am not fully a part of the hearing world.
It can be an isolating position at times, and I know I am one of many who feel like this. Navigating my way through our newly-masked society comes with extra difficulties that I am still learning to cope with.
There were times when I’d notice someone I knew in the street or a shop, our eyes would meet and they would hurry past pretending we hadn’t seen each other. Sometimes I could read from their body language that their behaviour stemmed from fear, but at other times I knew it was because they simply did not want to make the effort of lowering their mask to engage in small talk.
Before Covid, I would enjoy a passing chat. Now, there is a feeling of disappointment at missing out on friendly banter, but also some relief that I don’t have to go through the awkward struggle of masked dialogue.
It has been a fine line judging the best way to communicate in crowded places. Most people, if I explain that I lip-read, are happy to oblige and briefly remove their masks. However, they would often edge closer, maskless, to speak to me. Conscious of social distancing, I would take a step back, then they would step forward – it’s like some strange dance!
The deaf community has always faced its own special challenges and learned to deal with them. Now, it looks like masks are going to be with us for a considerable time, even after vaccinations. But with better awareness of the complications that masks cause to lip-readers, and a little patience from the hearing community, I’m hopeful we can get through this together.
• Laura MacTaggart lives in Inverness and works in the retail sector.
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