I shared a meme on Facebook. It shows a suited man in March standing in a field with his hands on his hips. In June, he’s looking at his watch. Three months later, he’s sitting down. By November, he’s flat on his back. The words above the photos read: “Me waiting for COVID-19 to disappear so I can [expletive] read lips again.”
Everyone is frustrated with this pandemic, and we’re all affected one way or another. But the longer this goes on, the more exhausting it is for me because my communication is cut off.
I was born profoundly deaf, though it wasn’t diagnosed until I was 14 months old. I was immediately outfitted with hearing aids and received daily speech therapy until I graduated from high school. As an adult, I swapped out one of my hearing aids for a cochlear implant.
But auditory training wasn’t a main focus back then—lipreading was. While people who received a cochlear implant at an earlier age may be able to understand your speech, I need to see your lips to understand you.
Which, of course, means that if you’re wearing a mask, I’m out of luck.
This has affected my social life, my confidence, and my emotional state.
When it was warm, I had a few one-on-one or small group distanced hangouts outside with friends. Unfortunately, it’s impossible to lipread and enforce a safe distance when groups get too large.
Venturing out in public aggravates my social anxiety, which is new. I can’t always tell if someone is talking to me behind their mask, and when I can, it’s awkward. Both are situations I like to avoid. As a result, I’ve become much more isolated.
There are masks with clear panels, but each one has its drawbacks. The CommunicatorTM Facemask is the only one that’s FDA-registered and fog-free, but its supply is limited and the clear window isn’t very large. The ClearMaskTM is FDA-cleared, but is a bit funny looking and usually isn’t worn properly (i.e. the sides aren’t tightened enough, which defeats the purpose). Handmade clear masks mean well, but don’t address the fog issue (when the user speaks, their breath will fog the clear panel, rendering it useless). There are anti-fog tricks, but they don’t always help or last. A face shield works for lipreading, yet doesn’t meet safety standards.
Even if there was a perfect option, it’d have to be widely used by others for me to benefit.
The irony is that seeing other people’s faces is helpful for everyone. Facial expressions provide greater context whether or not you have a hearing loss. As the ClearMaskTM website states, “Fifty-five percent of communication is visual… [and] facial expressions are important for perceived empathy and building rapport.” They help us retain our humanity.
One positive to everything shifting online is being able to see faces in their entirety. But of course this realm has its issues too. Not everyone has a great Internet connection or ideal lighting conditions. Virtual backgrounds might be creative, but they’re difficult for lipreaders. Not all platforms (Zoom, I’m talking to you!) have incorporated readily available captioning. Even if they have, “Zoom fatigue” is exacerbated for me. Think about it: when I lipread under normal conditions, I’m making sense of your lip movements, adding in context to make up for gaps, and then processing it. It’s tiring. Doing it online is even more so. Lipreading may be my superpower, but even I have limits.
Unfortunately there’s no real solution.
I try not to dwell on the emotional aspect of this, because there’s not much I can do about it. But I have never been more conscious of my deafness than I am right now. One source of support is my speaking deaf friends, who are going through the exact same thing. The ability to lipread and speak allows us to be independent. Our family and friends have had to adjust to helping us more in this new reality.
While there’s no end date, this IS temporary. In the meantime, please don’t assume that everyone can understand you when you’re wearing a mask. Pulling it down so we can lipread is legally allowed in some states like PA, but we’re not all comfortable with that. Ideally, you’d keep a safe distance while doing so. Use other tools at your disposal to communicate with us like using a smartphone or writing on paper. Any extra effort goes a long way. And please don’t use us as an excuse to not wear a mask; we must continue masking up to stem the spread.
At the beginning of the pandemic, this face mask issue was in the public consciousness. Now that we’re more than 10 months in, it’s faded. We’re still dealing with it, but we’re still here.