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Hearing people, imagine you are living in situations where the whole world is deaf and using American Sign Language (ASL) for communication. If you did not know ASL and were using your voice to talk to us everywhere you go, you would be frustrated trying to talk to deaf individuals.
Do you have ear plugs? If so, put them in your ears and wear your face mask. Try to talk to someone who is wearing a face mask and see if you can understand. Were you comfortable talking and satisfied with the communication? Was it easy and effective? Probably not.
You would be frustrated trying to understand persons using ASL. You would just nod your head and pretend to understand. You would make your best assumptions of what that person said to you. You would not feel comfortable. You would probably walk out and not want to deal with it. You would feel left out if you are sitting at a table and not understanding ASL that all deaf and hard of hearing people are using sign language to each other.
You would be acting like a deer in the headlights. If you understand these feelings, then you know what deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals feel in our hearing society as we struggle every day and we deal with those emotions.
Deaf and hard-of-hearing persons are now facing new challenges with face masks due to COVID-19.
When Pennsylvania Department of Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine directed businesses with in-person operations to protect their workers by making face coverings a mandatory requirement, some Pittsburgh Mercy colleagues sewed and secured some pretty creative “masks.”
While these sufficed for most non-medical colleagues, for those who work with persons we serve or other colleagues who are deaf or hard of hearing, face coverings were problematic. Individuals who are deaf rely on lip reading. The face coverings prevented them from seeing mouth movements, which are part of non-manual grammar in American Sign Language (ASL).
The solution? Face coverings with clear plastic around the mouth area. Fortunately, Kristi Dellinger, a friend of a Pittsburgh Mercy colleague, was able to adjust a pattern to create face coverings for use by Pittsburgh Mercy’s staff and persons served.
“The staff found them very helpful for themselves, families, and persons served,” says Mary Smith, Service Coordination/Specialized Service Coordination supervisor.
Those deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals struggle to communicate. Those who are deaf and hard of hearing did not get interpreters at hospitals or family doctors, and had to communicate through writing back and forth. Some doctors and nurses do not understand our written language (which may not follow standard grammar as we speak differently in ASL than hearing people speak and write) and easily misunderstood or made assumptions of what we think we understood.
The face mask culture added new barriers for the deaf and hard of hearing in the community, including work, shopping, drive-thrus, curbside pickup, and hearing people. Sometimes, we asked to read lips, but some refused to remove their mask to help us understand each other.
Some deaf and hard of hearing folks like to have a clear mask in order to help with lip reading and facial expressions, along with body language. Without a clear mask, we might have to make assumptions or take the chance of being misunderstood by you or in a meeting, therefore we cannot succeed with our team work or communication to be effective.
Deaf and hard of hearing individuals would encourage you to be mindful and put yourself in their shoes. Would you want to know what’s happening and not have misunderstandings?
Yasmin Nelson, is an ASL Specialized Service coordinator. Zandy Dudiak, communications coordinator, contributed to this story.