The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

As wearing masks becomes the norm, lip readers are left out of the conversation

Placeholder while article actions load

For Henry Kisor, an already-silent world is even more muted these days. As the coronavirus pandemic spread, the 79-year-old writer knew he would have a problem. Kisor is deaf and relies on reading lips to converse with others. But now, with more people wearing facial coverings, he’s stuck between a mask and a hard place.

So he sent a Facebook message to his fellow residents in a continuing-care retirement community in Evanston, Ill. “If I pass you in the hallway or outside on the sidewalk and do not respond to your hellos or comments, it is not because I am giving you the cold shoulder,” he wrote. “It is because we are all wearing masks and I cannot read your lips.” And he’s feeling more isolated. As the weather gets warmer and more people venture outdoors, he misses the “lively exchanges” of the recent past, he wrote. “It has been so long that I’ve had social interaction with anyone that I’ve forgotten how to carry [on] a conversation.”

I was a reviewer for Kisor when he was book editor of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1978 to 2006. We’re Facebook friends now, and I’ve enjoyed his wry and cheekily curmudgeonly posts about the special challenges facing him and other “deafoes,” as he dubs them, during the current crisis. Even his wife, Debby, who is not deaf, sometimes forgets to pull down her mask when they are outside so that he can understand her, he told me when I contacted him by email. “But I don’t take it personally,” he wrote. “Most of the time.”

He admitted that he has been a little cranky these days. “Anybody calls me difficult, I’ll punch them out,” he joked. Kisor is hardly alone. As Lisa Goldstein, a freelance writer in Pittsburgh, wrote on the website Unabridged Press: “Never have I felt more deaf. I’m an excellent lipreader, but I lack Superman’s x-ray vision.” If she ends up in the hospital with covid-19, she’s out of luck: Everyone will be masked, and she won’t have her husband at her side to interpret.

The National Association of the Deaf says that at least 48 million Americans are either deaf or hard of hearing. About 500,000 of those have disabling hearing loss — defined as a permanent loss that noticeably disrupts communication — says Chad Ruffin, a Seattle-based ear surgeon who implants cochlear devices, which stimulate the auditory nerve and provide a sense of sound. Even those who communicate through American Sign Language can face comprehension issues if a face is partially obscured by a mask, adds Ruffin (who is deaf and wears cochlear implants himself), because ASL depends on facial expressions. Moreover, many Americans don’t fully realize how profound their hearing loss is, so a loud, chaotic environment — like a hospital emergency room — can impede comprehension even without masks.

The hearing world has taken note of such concerns. Writer Roxane Gay’s recent tweet in support — “Genuine question: how are the hearing impaired who read lips accommodated if everyone is wearing masks?” — got more than 5,000 likes and nearly 400 retweets. On the technical side, one solution that has gotten some buzz is a mask with a clear panel around the mouth. (Kisor’s son was thinking along these lines when he sent his mother a fisherman’s hat with a detachable vinyl face shield to wear when she goes out with his father.) After she created a version of such a mask, Eastern Kentucky University senior Ashley Lawrence offered to send one to anyone who needed it. She was so overwhelmed with requests that she now offers instructions on making the masks at home, adding a warning that they are not medical-grade.

Although it has temporarily stopped taking orders, a company called Safe’N’Clear makes a mask that is approved by the Food and Drug Administration for surgical settings but is not an N95 respirator. That could pose a problem for health-care providers, says Goldstein, because the masks aren’t fully protective. And clear masks have other problems, such as a tendency to fog up, she notes.

Voice-to-text phone apps, video remote interpreting and remote wireless microphones are other options, but not all hospitals have such technology, and not all deaf people have smartphones or the technological savvy to use complicated systems.

Though the pandemic is introducing new hurdles for the deaf, sometimes the lack of sound can be, well, comforting. Consider Lew Golan. The 86-year-old Chicagoan lived in Tel Aviv at the start of the 1991 Gulf War, when Iraq lobbed Scud missiles into Israel. Despite the danger, Golan, who is deaf, says that he felt tranquil. While he couldn’t hear the Patriot missiles blasting over his home or the Scuds exploding nearby, other Israelis were so terrified that they suffered fatal heart attacks.

Today, in comparison, the pandemic is a “piece of cake,” Golan says. Yes, the threat is “more dangerous, deadlier, more widespread, and more capable of affecting me and my family than the Scud attacks were.” But he still feels calm. Being deaf, he says, means that he lives “24/7 in a world of absolute silence, undisturbed by the ambient sounds and noises that can drive other people up the wall.”

Kisor, meanwhile, is itching to get out of his “prison with velvet bars,” as he terms the retirement community under lockdown. His goal is to get to his summer place on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, the setting for his mystery novel series. In the meantime, he has been using the speech-to-text app on his smartphone on doctor visits. Recently, a doctor wearing an N95 mask tested him for the coronavirus, and Kisor used the app to translate the doctor’s voice into text. “Maybe there’s hope for me in the hospital if 1) I don’t lose my phone; 2) I can find an outlet for the charger; and 3) I don’t lose the charger,” he says.

His test for the virus, by the way, was negative.

Debra Bruno is a writer in Washington.

More from the Magazine:

This museum curator is an expert on dogs — and their presidential partners

He wrote the book on boomers, and he thinks Gen Z’s rap against them isn’t quite OK

Network news music is the soundtrack to current events, but few know its composers