'Invisible disability': Masks making it harder to communicate, deaf and hard of hearing say

The task of communicating has become increasingly difficult for the deaf or hard of hearing because so many people have begun wearing masks during the pandemic. Many who are hard of hearing rely on lipreading and 70 per cent of sign language relies on facial expressions and body movements.

As economy reopens, wearing masks makes it harder to lipread, understand sign language

Canada's top health official is now recommending Canadians wear non-medical face masks when keeping a two-metre distance isn't possible. That makes it hard for people who are deaf or hard of hearing to read lips or facial expressions in sign language. (Craig Chivers/CBC)

Going to get groceries these days is the source of anxiety for many people during the pandemic — the lineups, the narrow aisles, the touching of produce. But when you're hard of hearing or deaf, the task can be exponentially more difficult.

"The masks that everyone is wearing right now are quite the barrier," said Leah Riddell, community outreach director for the Ontario Cultural Society of the Deaf.

Riddell, speaking through a sign language interpreter, said masks prevent people from being able to read lips or facial expressions.

"For those wearing masks, I'm not sure if they're talking to me or if they're talking to somebody else. So there's a lot of assumptions. And if you ask somebody to repeat they can be very dismissive," said Riddell.

"We have to go out, we have to survive. We have to work. So there are a lot of members within the community that are quite anxious and quite concerned when they need to go out."

Leah Riddell is the community outreach director for the Ontario Cultural Society of the Deaf. The society works to advance the education and awareness of deaf culture. (Submitted)

With more and more businesses opening their doors, and Canada's top health official now officially recommending the use of face coverings in public, the task of communicating has become increasingly difficult for some who are deaf or hard of hearing.

While options such as clear masks have emerged in some places, they are not widely available or worn, so people who are deaf or hard of hearing and are struggling to communicate now are asking for patience and understanding from the public.

Different levels of hearing

The widespread use of masks has affected a range of people with different levels of hearing ability.

Craig Lund, a Toronto-based marketing head hunter, has been hard of hearing since he was three. He is deaf in his right ear, has about 30 per cent hearing in his left ear and wears a hearing aid.

"What the pandemic has shown is that I rely on reading lips a lot more than I realized," said Lund.

Craig Lund, who uses a hearing aid, says since the pandemic started he's realized how much he relies on lipreading to understand people. (Keith Whelan/CBC)

"Masks came along and all of a sudden I started to struggle a whole lot with understanding what was going on."

Lund described a few instances at the grocery store where he's been unable to understand what someone is saying.

"There's a lot of anxiousness when people are having conversations — they want you to move along quickly. And people start to get irritated really quickly too," said Lund.

For those who are deaf, masks present an additional challenge: about 70 per cent of  American Sign Language (ASL), involves facial expressions and body movements, and only 30 per cent comes from hand signs, said Riddell.

"Facial expressions are quite critical in the language, and with the masks it's a barrier that prevents communication from happening because half the face is covered," she said.

Seventy per cent of American Sign Language relies on the face and the body and only 30 per cent comes from hand shapes and signs, according to Leah Riddell. (CBC)

Until recently, the struggles have been at grocery stores.

"Now that things are starting to slowly reopen we're noticing it even more. There are more concerns, more anxiousness, about, 'Are they going to understand, are we going to be able to do this?'" said Riddell.

Masks plus physical distancing

Another challenge is just how much masks muffle the sound of a voice.

"There have already been some studies to show that general surgical medical masks … may reduce the way someone perceives sound by three to four decibels (DB)," said Rex Banks, an audiologist and director of hearing health care at Canadian Hearing Services, adding that can make someone's voice 25 to 30 per cent softer.

Masks make it harder to perceive sound. Combined with physical distancing, they can make communication a challenge for the deaf and hard of hearing. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Physical distancing makes the problem even worse.

"So you have the level of speech that's decreased and then also when you put the distance in there — so trying to stand maybe six feet away from each other — who knows at this point how much of the sound is actually reaching the person," he said.

Banks said there are a number of speech-to-text apps and other tools that he's advising people to use during this time. Canadian Hearing Services has also been conducting a series of webinars that offer resources for people who are having challenges right now.

Clear masks

In recent weeks, there's been a popularization of clear masks intended to help those who are hard of hearing communicate. 

Meredith Brookings, owner of Couture Alterations in Whitby, Ont, pivoted to manufacturing PPE after the pandemic was declared. She typically tailors wedding gowns or dresses for special occasions.

A snapshot of the clear masks made by Meredith Brookings, owner of Couture Alterations in Whitby, Ont. (Meredith Brookings)

One of her products that's seen a spike in demand: clear masks. It started with a request from the Canadian Helen Keller Centre.

"We put our heads together to come up with a design to help," said Bookings, who has now been inundated with requests for clear masks.

"From New Brunswick to Windsor to up north and Peterborough. I even had a couple of requests from Kansas City and Texas down in the States."

While clear masks offer some benefits, the problem is that it's other people — not just those in the deaf community — that need to be wearing them for them to help those who are deaf or hard of hearing.

Because of that, Riddell said right now many still prefer face shields because they're more accessible. Some are even getting creative and making shields at home.

Medical grade masks

Health Canada recently authorized the use of one type of mask with a clear mouth for medical use against COVID-19, manufactured by Clearmask LLC, a Baltimore company

It's the first clear mask that's been given the green light by the federal body during this pandemic, but it's unclear how many health-care workers are wearing them in Canada.

Health Canada authorized the use of this mask during the pandemic from Baltimore-based Clearmask LLC. (Clearmask)

In the meantime, the deaf and hard of hearing community is asking for understanding from the public.

"A lot of times it's an invisible disability," said Lund.

"People don't realize that there are other things going in other people's lives. Everyone has various levels of stresses or abilities whether it's mental health or hearing."

Anxiety levels are high during interactions in public right now. Members of the deaf community are asking people for understanding and patience. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

Sometimes that means putting yourself in another person's position before reacting, said Riddell.

"It's just very important for mainstream society to understand you just need to have some patience with us to communicate."