- Masks prevent people who are deaf or hard of hearing from lip reading or seeing facial expressions
- Deaf Services recognise the importance of masks, encouraged hearing community to learn Auslan
- Advocates say the needs of deaf community largely remain invisible
For people who are deaf or hard or hearing, face masks can be a literal barrier to communication, concealing the facial expressions and movements that Auslan speakers and lip-readers rely on.
“Everywhere we go presently is more stressful than normal — normal being difficult anyway — because we can’t see people’s faces,” Ms Sterling, who lip-reads, said.
“Just going shopping is highly stressful.
“I try to follow those normal social cues — for example, I know the checkout person will ask for cash or card et cetera, but I do get it wrong.”
Barriers to simple tasks
She said simple interactions like ordering Subway sandwiches for her daughters had become a nightmare when people’s faces were covered.
“I went in there alone [and] I realised that I wouldn’t understand them,” Ms Sterling said.
“I repeated everything three times, they must have thought I was crazy.”
It is a barrier that she said could be very isolating for people when masks are encouraged or mandated.
Ms Sterling said, before the pandemic, she would hardly ever have needed to disclose to strangers that she was deaf.
“I normally fudge my way through as best I can,” she said.
“I’ve been forced to tell people now and that’s hard.”
Learning to adapt
But COVID-19 is not going away and neither are the vital measures — like masks — that protect the community from contracting the virus.
Brett Casey is the chief executive of Deaf Services and the Deaf Society and said, now with a few lockdowns under the belt, the deaf community was learning to adapt, but it was not without its challenges.
“We are quite skilled communicators,” Mr Casey said through an interpreter.
“But as deaf people, we’ve learnt to adapt and communicate in different ways.
“We can gesture … that we’re deaf, we can use our phones or write down to communicate.”
Deaf Services have released a number of graphics that can be downloaded to a phone and used to communicate quickly with people, whether that’s asking someone to pull down their mask to see their mouth or communicating they are deaf.
How can the hearing community help?
There are plenty of things the hearing community can do to help break down communication barriers.
“There’s a variety of ways to communicate with [the deaf community]: you can use gesture, you can use body language, you could even learn a little bit of Auslan, that’s definitely the best outcome to engage with the deaf community,” Mr Casey said.
“You can learn some basic things to assist you in communication with a deaf person.
“Having a person, when I go to the shop, just being able to sign ‘thank you’ at the end or just even being able to gesture to where to find a particular thing, does assist in that communication.”
Other solutions, such as masks that communicate that the wearer is deaf, exist but Ms Sterling said she didn’t think everyone would appreciate being “labelled” and said some people may see it as a breach of privacy.
Clear masks ‘would help’
Instead, Ms Sterling would like to see clear masks become more widely available and used by people working in customer service.
“I’m sure they would help lots of people,” she said.
Despite the difficulties that come with masks, Mr Casey said the PPE was essential to community safety.
“Yes, wearing masks is an additional barrier but I think that it’s also important to know and be aware that wearing masks can save lives,” he said.
“So deaf people are on board to make sure that we keep Australia and our communities safe.”