When this year started, no one was expecting a global pandemic to hit. COVID-19 has changed the way of the world. Wearing masks, gloves and having a personal theme song to wash your hands to is now the new norm. One thing that many are not considering, is how difficult it is to be deaf or hard of hearing in the time of COVID.
Being a person with any degree of hearing loss comes with its own brand of struggles, regardless of a pandemic, however many of the barriers facing those with a hearing loss have been amplified. Many individuals who are deaf and hard of hearing need to be able to read your lips, to communicate. This is called “speechreading.” I am deaf and rely on lipreading as my primary form of communication. Now that everyone’s lips are covered, access to communication has come to a screeching halt. This can be stressful, tiring and sometimes downright scary. The simplest of task (picking up coffee through a drive-thru, buying groceries, getting an oil change) have become a struggle of, “what did they say?” “Are they talking to me?” Sometimes, by the end of the day, you are so exhausted from the constant guessing games, that you just simply nod and pray that whoever is talking is asking a yes or no question and your simple nod was sufficient.
My story is not unique. According to the 2012 Colorado census, there are 5,187,582 people living in Colorado and of those people, 446,132 are deaf or hard of hearing. It is safe to assume that with the increase in population in recent times, that these numbers have only gone up. I am the disability advocate for the Independence Center. Since the pandemic hit, I have heard about numerous negative communication experiences from coworkers and our consumers who are deaf or hard of hearing. These various experiences all share a common theme: lack of awareness around the needs of the deaf and hard of hearing populations. For those who do not live with a disability or know someone with a disability, it is easy to not know how to support these populations. Education is the first step to making lasting changes.
So how can we support our deaf and hard of hearing community members?
Buy face mask that have a clear window. There are online companies such as Safe ‘N’ Clean and The ClearMask, that sell these.
Buy reusable clear window mask from companies such as Etsy. Their prices range from $8-$12.
Make your own clear window mask. Various patterns can be found online.
Volunteer to be a part of Colorado Mask Project (https://www.coloradomaskproject.com) and make and donate clear window masks for our community.
Have a pen and paper or a white board handy, so that you can help facilitate more efficient communication for those with a hearing loss.
Learn basic conversational American Sign Language skills. Gallaudet University has free online ASL lessons.
Be aware, be kind, be patient. A little empathy and support go a long way.
Kelsey Sandella is the Community Organizing Assistant for The Independence Center.