“Deaf, I’m deaf!” I shouted back, pointing to my ears.
For a moment the man looked confused. Then he let go of my arm and walked back down the platform, as though we’d never interacted at all.
For a while after that I wore a pair of earbuds, though they weren’t plugged into anything. Headphones are a socially acceptable reason for not hearing. People largely left me alone.
That incident in the subway happened almost a decade ago. But in the months since masks became many Americans’ defense against the spread of the novel coronavirus, I think about it often. Masks are a barrier against the virus, but they also pose a major hurdle for deaf and hard-of-hearing people.
According to the Hearing Loss Association of America, 48 million Americans have some hearing loss, and we use a variety of technological aids and communication methods to connect with the world around us. For those of us who speak American Sign Language, masks can be a nuisance because they inhibit mouth movements and other facial expressions that are part of the language’s grammar. And in interactions in which deaf people rely on speech-reading and facial cues, masks make communication nearly impossible. Just as the man in the subway reacted to me with rage, hearing people too often default to impatience or anger when we don’t respond.
Hearing people, usually well-meaning acquaintances, are quick to send me articles they’ve seen on Facebook about clear masks designed to help with lipreading. The masks usually feature a plastic vinyl square inset into a standard surgical mask or cloth face covering. While these masks can be helpful for a planned event such as a doctor’s visit, they’re far from a perfect solution — they can be hard to find and expensive, many of them fog up, and most still cover the nose and cheeks with opaque material. Less than half of spoken English is visible on the lips alone, and speech-readers often rely on context clues from the speaker’s face holistically, so any covering is an impediment to communication.
But even if clear masks were fully effective, there’s a big catch. For these specialized masks to help, it’s not those of us who are deaf or hard of hearing who have to wear them. Instead, it’s hearing people who want to make themselves understood.
Offering clear masks as a “solution” relies on the all-too-common idea that it is easier to heap equipment, technology and individual support upon a deaf or disabled person than to make society broadly accessible, to retrofit equality rather than to design for it in the first place. Instead of making business dealings accessible via email or text chat, companies offer a TTY contact number, though most deaf people haven’t owned a TTY device in decades. Rather than integrating captions into a video or film and risk “inconveniencing” hearing viewers, we’re offered faulty personal caption devices, transcripts, or nothing at all. In the same way, people badly want to be able to tell us to go out and buy a special “deaf person mask,” and sort it out on our own.
Though clear face masks don’t solve the problem, neither does risking public health by going without masks at all. It’s frustrating to watch some abled people display cards that fraudulently purport to exempt them from wearing masks under the Americans with Disabilities Act, putting their comfort and convenience ahead of public safety. It’s even more infuriating to see people do so when people like me put on face coverings, knowing full well they create such difficulty in our everyday interactions.
Rather than getting angry at us, hearing people can type text on their phones, try a speech-to-text transcription app or learn the ASL manual alphabet for basic exchanges, use gestures, or employ pen and paper. None of this is hard. All it requires is basic courtesy and kindness.
The burden of communication has never been solely on deaf people. The pandemic has simply unmasked the fact that we usually do most of the work for you. Now that we physically can’t, we need you to do your part.