Friday, June 26, 2020

Masks and the Hearing Impaired

Although I knew it was coming but hoped it wouldn't, I learned a few hours ago that the mayor of Memphis has signed an ordinance requiring all persons (except for those with a written document from a medical professional) to wear masks when outside of their home or car unless they are able to maintain social distancing while performing outdoor activities.

There has been lots of talk about the pros and cons of wearing a mask.  I'm not going to get into that here.  It is pretty much a given that the mandatory decree of wearing facemasks is going to spread over the nation.  Until the coronavirus dies down or until enough people stand up against it, we have to suffer through it.

There is one issue that many people have not considered:  the problems that hearing-impaired people have with communicating with those who are wearing masks.  Hearing-impaired people who rely on reading lips to aid in understanding other people are now not able to so.

My Experience as a Hearing-Impaired Person

My twin sister and I were born three months early in the early 1970s.  My twin sister went to Heaven when we were four days old.  I lived in the hospital for three months before going home.  Although I had developmental delays, not walking until I was 16 months old, my parents did not realize I was hearing impaired until I reached school age.  My mother thought I was "being a Bounds" (her side of the family) by hearing only what I wanted to hear.  (This is not an invalid conclusion.)  I had learned to get along by teaching myself to read lips.  Later when I was in first grade, a teacher at my school (a neighbor of ours who taught my mother when she was little) told my mother that I needed to have my hearing tested.

Mama took me to the speech pathology department at The University of Southern Mississippi to have my hearing tested.  She was shocked (and dismayed that she had not realized it before) that I could not hear normally and needed to wear hearing aids.  I was fitted with one hearing aid for my better ear (My parents could only afford one.) the summer between my first and second-grade years.  I remember the doctor telling me very solemnly that taking care of my hearing aid was to be my responsibility.  I was to keep up with it and make sure it never got wet.  Of course, it rained that day and I remembered covering my ear with my hand.  I'm a rule-follower, in general, so I took his words to heart.  My mother helped me set up a place to keep my hearing aid and its battery when not in use.  I used a ceramic heart-shaped box that had been given to me when I was a flower girl for my cousin's wedding.  [Side note:  I have always taken such good care of my hearing aids that I am still on only my third set.  My first hearing aid lasted 13 years.  My second set lasted 12 years, and my current set is 17 years old.  This is highly unusual, but God has been good in allowing them to last as long as they have.]

My hearing is bad enough that I need to wear hearing aids (though I can get by without wearing them at home - I don't miss much), but not bad enough that I needed to learn sign language or required an interpreter.  I have always been mainstreamed in school, did well in my studies, and went on to earn an education degree at The University of Southern Mississippi.  I taught school for 11-½ years and worked in other jobs requiring dealing with other people.

All that to say, I have gotten along very well by using my hearing aids and my ability to read lips as an aid in helping me to understand others.  And then the coronavirus hit.  My husband put me and my daughter on lockdown.  I called it being grounded because that's what it felt like.  He was the only one who went anywhere for several weeks, going to work and going shopping for what we needed.  We had to watch church via livestream, and I relied on social media and text messaging to keep up with people.  I don't like to talk on the phone - because I'm an introvert and a little bit because it takes a lot of energy to really listen on the phone, but mostly because I hate talking on the phone.  My daughter had more Zoom calls and video chats than I did, and I was fine with that.

My pastor kept our church open for every service but was sure to uphold the group limits, masks, and social distancing.  He and his wife began having a meet-and-greet car line before each service, and that was my sanity saver.  My daughter and I went to church to talk to them (well, mostly my pastor's wife) and then drove home to watch the live-streamed service.  We had our first large-group church service on Easter Sunday when they held the service out in the parking lot.  My husband allowed us to get out of the car and socialize and that was such a blessing.  However, from the beginning of the lockdown, I noticed early on that wearing the masks hindered my ability to understand others especially when there was a lot of background noise.  It took a few weeks before others became more comfortable with removing the masks which helped tremendously.

Help for the Hearing-Impaired

Over the last few days, I have learned of other hearing-impaired people who have suffered much worse than I have.  They have been treated abominably and sometimes no effort is made to help them understand.  I personally have not been treated unkindly, but there are people who flat out will not lower their mask for me to read their lips.  Most of the time, I have my daughter with me and she will help me; if I'm with my friends, they can help me, too.  Still, it's a problem.

Long ago, in an education class, I learned about the then-new ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990) which stated that businesses and governmental agencies are required to make accommodations so that people with disabilities can enjoy the same level of services as non-disabled persons.  This is why we have wheelchair ramps, handicapped stalls, closed captioning on TVs, etc.  I only had a passing introduction to the law, enough to know that it exists, and have never had a need to study it in-depth.  With all the problems I had read about, I wondered if the masks were conflicting with the law.  (It doesn't - as long as the employees provide some alternate means of communication or do not refuse service because of the disability.)

"What About Those Masks with the See-Through Windows??!!"

If I've heard or read it once, I've heard or read it a dozen times.  Yes, the see-through masks.  From the get-go, I knew it is a bad idea at worst and impractical at best.  Why??  Because I am not going to buy a mask to hand out to every person that I need to talk to.  My husband would have a stroke at the cost.  Also, I don't think they would be too happy if I bought ONE mask and passed it from person to person to use.  Unless many of people in public wear them, it's not practical to offer as a solution.  Plus, I've read that they fog up and thereby become useless for that purpose.

So, Now What?

Now with the ordinance having been signed, everybody (except for the stubborn ones who believe they shouldn't be made to - I don't entirely disagree) will be wearing masks and there is NOTHING in the ordinance to allow for help for the hearing impaired.  That means that many people will not lower their masks -- because of the ordinance, because of fear of losing their job, and because of fear that they'll catch the disease themselves.  What they fail to realize is that if they're in public at all, they're already at risk!  Why?  Because all the people touch all the stuff.  So, we're in a catch-22 situation.

I have made a couple of graphics for hearing-impaired people to use that they can save onto their phones or tablets and show to others.  Feel free to download and use it if you think it will help you.  You can even print it out if you wish.  Just do a right-click and save the image (if you are on your computer).  I put it in two different layouts so that it can fill the screen.

Let me know if this is a help to you or if you have any thoughts regarding the subject.

Also, a few links:


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