Mandatory face coverings have exacerbated gaps in communication
BEND, Ore. (KTVZ) -- When Oregon officials introduced the mask mandate, it was designed to protect people from COVID-19. However, it has created another hurdle for the deaf and hard of hearing community.
Dr. Kelly Anderson, an audiologist in Bend, was born deaf and uses bilateral cochlear implants. She received her first pair of hearing aids when she was just a year old.
When her parents asked the audiologist why this happened, "the audiologist said, 'You can spend the rest of your life looking for the reason why this happened, or you can do something about it and try to get her involved in an education program,'” she recalled recently.
Anderson learned American Sign Language, or ASL, and relied on lip--reading to understand others.
Then, the COVID-19 pandemic hit Oregon. Last July 1, Gov. Kate Brown announced face masks would be required in all indoor spaces across the state.
For Anderson and others like her, masks have become another physical and figurative barrier to communication.
“It wasn’t until we got out and started communicating with other people and seeing the masks really do affect what people are saying that it became a real thing,” she said.
The mask requirement has also made it more difficult to communicate through American Sign Language, a language that uses a combination of body movements and facial expressions.
She said trying to understand people through a medical or cloth mask can be exhausting. It requires her, as well as people with mild to moderate hearing loss, to listen harder.
“By the end of the day, oftentimes I am ready to just take off my implants,” she said.
Her daughter, Arden, and her son, August, said they step in to interpret when they need to.
“I’ll definitely sign words to her sometimes, or mouth them in sometimes situations where I can easily just take my mask off for a little bit," Arden said.
August added, “It’s pretty easy for me, but it’s easier for her to read my lips.”
However, for Mylum O’Shinn, who identifies as hard of hearing and said he is not fluent in ASL, the problem is less about being able to see and more about being able to hear what others are saying.
“Hearing aids are not perfect, because we have no directional hearing,” O’Shinn said. “Sounds do not go through the mask very well. It blocks the sound.”
Anderson and O’Shinn are not alone.
According to the latest data from the CDC, 25.6% of Oregonians reported having some type of disability, and 6.3% of them reported being deaf or hard of hearing.
While Anderson said clear masks and face shields make a huge difference in being able to communicate, O’Shinn said they are similar to plexiglass, because they block sound.
They said video conferencing technology like Zoom doesn't necessarily make communication any easier.
“No -- it makes it much more difficult,” O’Shinn said. “There’s a lot of echo in my house.”
Anderson said, “What’s been hard with Zoom is understanding when there’s many people speaking in different discussions.”
O’Shinn said that in general, most people have been accommodating. He advises people interacting with others who have disabilities to be patient and understanding, especially during the pandemic.
“We’re just as hardworking as everyone else in the community, and we have our own problems, just as you do,” he said.
Anderson said she focuses on the positives.
“I try to find the silver lining, and how I can make it a more positive experience,” she said. “That is why I wanted to get into the field of audiology, and for parents to realize when they find out their child is deaf or hard of hearing, it’s not the end of the world.”