Life

I’m Deaf and I Lip-Read. All Those Masks Are Presenting a Problem.

A silhouetted woman wearing a mask.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Denis Jung/Unsplash.

Coronavirus Diaries is a series of dispatches exploring how the coronavirus is affecting people’s lives. For the latest public health information, please refer to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website. For Slate’s coronavirus coverage, click here.

I’ve been deaf since birth, but it’s not something I think about a lot. I use cochlear implants, which consist of an external device that picks up sound and sends it to an internal system that transmits signals to the brain. With implants, context interpretation, facial cues, and lip-reading, I can comprehend more than 95 percent of speech in a quiet situation.

As mask regulations spring up, the likelihood of being able to have a conversation where I understand what is going on has dropped dramatically. Facial coverings muffle sound, and tightfitting masks distort pronunciation. I can’t see your lips moving. In other words, I can hear you—but I can’t understand you.

Just about everyone, regardless of hearing ability, picks up information from seeing others’ faces, and most people lip-read to some degree. But deaf and hard of hearing people do it more, especially in noisy places. I don’t sign, but people who do also use facial expressions to help to connote meaning in American Sign Language.

When I’m somewhere noisy, and a person speaking to me is wearing a mask, my speech comprehension is abysmal. I can understand about 20 percent of what is being said, which is functionally useless. Early in the pandemic, at the end of a stressful two-hour grocery trip, the cashier was trying to explain that she couldn’t use my reusable bags. She seemed frustrated when I couldn’t answer simple questions. She was clearly stressed and needed to call in a second cashier before I understood what the problem was.

Another time, I decided to treat myself to bubble tea after several weeks of isolating alone. I ordered my usual—black tea, soy milk, and boba—but for some reason I still don’t understand, they couldn’t make it. I broke down my request: “Do you have black tea?” “Yes.” “Do you have soy milk?” “Yes.” “Do you have boba?” “Yes.” “But you can’t combine them?” “Mumble, mumble, mumble.” I ended up saying, “Give me your favorite drink.”

In situations like these, I debate disclosing my hearing loss in the hope of eliciting more patience, but in the frenzy of these situations, it often doesn’t make sense. Understanding that the world is not designed for me evokes anger and unnecessary shame.

If someone raises their mask to speak to me, we are both put at greater risk of contracting COVID-19, but at least I can understand them. I am constantly calculating the risks of getting sick, or possibly getting someone else sick, versus the cost of missing or misunderstanding important information, losing social interactions, and minimizing the shame I feel when I ask others to prioritize my needs over their comfort and safety.

On a walk, I ran into friends of mine who are aware of this particular challenge. One of them immediately pulled her mask off and situated herself far away from me. Her husband shot her a look and whispered in her ear, then kept his mask on. “It’s fine,” she responded to him. For the rest of the conversation, I could understand her, but she had to tell me what he was saying. I felt bad that I put them in a situation where they had to make this decision, but his refusal to take off his mask made me feel that his health trumped my right to participate in the conversation. Perhaps it does. Thankfully, I live in an area with relatively few cases, but as the number increases, my own personal calculus keeps shifting.

What happens if I am hospitalized with COVID-19? My childhood dentist always lifted his mask so I could understand him, but no medical professional will do that now. Nor should they. Well-meaning friends send me articles about clear masks designed to allow lip-reading. However, these don’t provide the same level of protection as some others do. And how would this even work? I could ask friends to wear them when we’re together, but what about at the grocery store or while doing my job as an essential local government employee? Am I supposed to carry around a stash to hand off to everyone I come in contact with? Besides, every company that makes them is out of stock.

Aside from simple accommodations like whiteboards at essential businesses if people need them, I guess what I’d like is compassion. If you know or suspect someone is in my position, consider lifting your mask up from 6 feet away when we’re having a conversation. Someone behind a mask—or someone who isn’t wearing a mask—might be in circumstances you don’t understand. The pandemic has made it even clearer that the world is not made for people with disabilities. We shouldn’t have to deal with shame while going to the grocery store and doing the same things that are lifelines to everyone right now.