The Covid-19 pandemic has caused astronomical changes to everyday life and has affected just about everybody. The effect of the virus has posed challenges to the ways that we do simple tasks such as grocery shopping, eating out in a restaurant and even going for a walk. The introduction of face masks has sent the whole world into a frenzy. Suddenly, human connection seems to be a thing of the past and it is considered uncommon to actually see a person’s smile.
However, perhaps one of the most affected groups by the pandemic are the deaf and hard-of-hearing community. Those who rely on lipreading and facial expressions for communication cues are now met with a barrier that makes it harder to converse than ever.
Louise, an award-winning deaf advocate, runs a blog dedicated to raising deaf awareness. As a volunteer for Action on Hearing Loss (soon to be known by its previous name, the Royal National Institute for Deaf People) Louise strives to make those around her aware of the important work that the charity does.
However, Louise too has been affected by the introduction of fabric face masks.
“It is impossible to lip read people” says Louise. “It feels incredibly isolating not being able to communicate in groups of people with masks”.
A report published by the government in 2017 stated that there are approximately 11 million people who are deaf or hard-of-hearing in the UK alone, and this number isn’t including those who are not registered. Face coverings pose huge, and often overlooked, challenges for the deaf and hard-of-hearing population.
With face masks now mandatory in public shared spaces, it can be extremely difficult for this community to converse. Those who can communicate with British Sign Language are also facing difficulties, as BSL often requires facial recognition to understand signs, which are hidden underneath face masks. With the ability to communicate stripped away from them, many deaf and hard-of-hearing people are left feeling isolated and lonely.
Evie Cryer is a teacher with severe hearing loss who has been struggling to teach her class as they all wear face masks. Recently, she has been vocal on Twitter about how the lives of deaf people have been dramatically shifted as a result of the introduction of fabric face masks.
She explains that her deafness had always been something that she could control and make her own adjustments for, until the storm that is Covid-19.
“Fabric masks meant I suddenly had to ask for help: remove masks, speak slowly and clearly. Suddenly, I had to rely on other people and it crushed my confidence. My poor wife now comes everywhere with me as my interpreter or wearing a clear mask, so I can lipread”.
“I’ve had too many hearing people refuse to make adjustments and make me feel bad to want to risk going out alone again”.
Though staff at Evie’s school have been making alterations to try and help her, such as providing clear panel masks and wearing visors, Evie says her anxiety has “reached a peak”.
She says, “I can’t teach if I can’t hear my own voice, in a mask, or can only hear my voice, in a visor. I’ve had numerous comments made about how I’m not being safe or putting others at risk for not wearing a mask”.
Evie continues, “It’s made my anxiety so much worse. I have had some time off recently when my anxiety reached a peak. It has genuinely changed every part of my life and I hate it”.
Not only do fabric face coverings hinder the way that deaf and hard-of-hearing people communicate, they can also have detrimental effects on their mental health and wellbeing.
Evie says, “I don’t think hearing people are aware of how incredibly isolating it is to be unable to communicate, or how soul-destroying it is to repeatedly have to ask for the same access as everyone else”.
Liam O’Dell, deaf journalist and avid campaigner for deaf awareness, expressed similar feelings.
“While I think a lot of my anxiety around leaving the house post-lockdown concerned how safe I felt, I think some of it was also shaped by my fear of misunderstanding others who were using opaque face masks”.
Liam continues, “While I shouldn’t be embarrassed or sorry for asking things to be said again, there is always an anxiety around whether the other person will be frustrated or irritated by such a request”.
While Liam thinks that more should be getting done to raise public awareness around clear masks, some companies are beginning to adapt to the difficulties of the deaf and hard-of-hearing community by implementing accessible features that will benefit them.
Liam told us about a recent trip to the barbers that he described as “reassuring”.
He says, “All of the staff were wearing transparent face shields which allowed for lipreading, which I say I do subconsciously, and facial expressions. There were hardly any issues in there whilst I was getting my hair cut, it was certainly a more reassuring scenario”.
Liam uses his website and social media to spread awareness and campaign for deafness, disability and more. He called upon the government to do more around the communication needs of deaf and hard-of-hearing people during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Describing the lack of transparent face coverings Liam says, “It’s all well and good that the government recently procured 250,000 clear masks for use in health and social care settings, but these clear masks are single-use with no idea about what will happen when this supply eventually runs out”.
“It would be great to see the UK Government implement a disability strategy which details the steps it’s taking to support deaf and disabled people during this crisis, as unfortunately a lot of people in this community say they have been made to feel like an afterthought”.
In addition to Liam’s barbers, Google have also implemented a new accessible feature designed to help deaf and hard-of-hearing people. Recently launched on Android phones, Google have added a feature that provides a push notification when a sound is detected near the user that may require their attention, such as dog barking or a fire alarm.
Other companies, such as the Helloface are developing transparent masks to aid with lipreading and British Sign Language conversations. Inspired by the deaf community, but comfortable for all, the Helloface also aims to provide a way for health and safety to remain in workplaces and public shared spaces.
Established during the Covid-19 pandemic, the Helloface were developed in conjunction with the difficulties that director, Dean Ezekiel’s, wife had with communicating with people wearing fabric face masks.
How to put on your Helloface
Dean says, “The development of the company is inspired by my wife who is partially deaf and relies on lip reading to assist when she may not be able to quite hear the person”.
Describing fabric face masks, Dean says, “It created a barrier to communication that we take for granted. People should feel comfortable going about their daily activities”.
The Helloface is completely transparent, allowing for lips to be read, and facial expressions to be noticed from all angles. To enhance the clarity, the mask includes anti-fog additives which prevent the mask steaming up when the user is speaking or breathing.
Furthermore, the Helloface is certified anti-microbial to ISO 22196:2011, which reduces the levels of microbes on the surface of the mask, providing extra protection.
The Helloface is also completely recyclable and reusable. Made from recyclable plastic, polypropylene, the Helloface can be recycled after the intended 30 reuses. Ensuring to use a material that can be recycled was an extremely important process when the mask was being manufactured, as the impact that disposable face masks are having on the environment are astronomical.
Deaf charities such as Deaf Action are constantly campaigning for the inclusion of the deaf and hard-of-hearing community. Fiona Lavender, Marketing Officer for Deaf Action explains that the charity holds regular meetings with the Scottish Government about this.
How to Take off your Helloface
“At Deaf Action, we’re continuing to call for clear masks to be made available in educational and medical settings, as well as to members of the public who need them. We’re doing this through regular meetings with Scottish Government officials to share the experiences of deaf people direct with key decision makers”.
She continues, “We’re also aware of the impact [of opaque face masks] on deaf people in healthcare settings, particularly those who use our social care and support services”.
Fiona describes fabric face masks as creating “barriers to everyday conversation to everyday conversation”.
She says, “Deaf individuals reliant on lipreading, and clients who use our support services, have expressed that they feel angry, upset and frightened. They need to be able to communicate with health professionals, but if a carer, doctor or nurse is wearing an opaque mask, they don’t know what they’re saying or even what they’re feeling, as they can’t pick up on facial cues”.
For what is now a daunting thought, companies such as the Helloface aim to make communicating much easier for the deaf and hard-of-hearing community; for them, let’s hope that other companies take similar steps to avoid exclusion.