Boudreaux, who considers herself hard of hearing, wears one hearing aid at the moment and is waiting on a new pair. Even so, she said, masks — which hide lips, obscure facial expressions, and muffle sound — cause communication problems.
“I find myself feeling overwhelmed and not being able to understand what others are saying behind the mask,” she wrote, “[which] has been frustrating for me.”
Ever since masking became mandatory, Boudreaux has become more anxious about being on her own, and afraid of not being able to understand what’s going on around her. She relies on other people, like her family or her boyfriend, to help her navigate that.
Lauren Leflar of King of Prussia said before the pandemic, she’d be able to understand most social interactions by reading lips. Now, she has to explain that she’s deaf wherever she goes. At her old job at Wegmans, masks made it difficult to understand customers.
“I’d have to ask another coworker to help them when I [didn’t] understand,” Leflar said.
Now Leflar’s family members know they need to sign more, or stay at a distance and take their masks off in order to communicate fully.
Less than half of the sounds in the English language can be seen on a speaker’s mouth, and as the Inquirer’s Tom Avril pointed out, many people with hearing loss can hear vowel sounds, but masks can stifle consonants. That means deaf and hard of hearing people often fill in the blanks by watching faces and body language. Some call it “speechreading,” to indicate that it’s about more than just reading lips.
“ASL (and other sign languages) rely on facial cues and other non-manual features to convey grammatical information as well as emotive expression,” explained Jami Fisher, linguist and American Sign Language program director at the University of Pennsylvania. “With much of the face covered, this information is lost, as is a lot of the meaning.”
In other words, physical expressions are a key way to understand attitude, emotion, and specific meaning of someone’s words or signs. Some ASL interpreters and speakers call them “facial grammar.” They’re a critical part of the visual language — and masks can make that confusing.
“When my wife and I are out and about and wearing masks, a frequent misunderstanding we have is due to tone,” explained Neil McDevitt, executive director of the Swarthmore-based Deaf Hearing Communication Centre. “In ASL, the face usually is what gives depth to the conversation.”
“A deeply-furrowed brow and mouth shape will tell me that I’m REALLY in trouble for forgetting something on the other side of the store,” he continued. “But without the mouth-shape to tell me, it looks like she’s questioning whether or not I got that thing from the other side of the store.”
One solution: see-through masks