Since the lockdown, there’s been much discus- sion about whether we should all be wearing face masks, with no consensus among either doctors or politicians. But one voice has been noticeably absent from the debate is that of the deaf and hard of hearing, for whom mandatory mask- wearing would, many say, be “disastrous”.
Opaque face masks prevent deaf people from being able to communicate. Jacqueline Press, 43, from Barnet, who was born profoundly deaf and is an expert witness lipreader, is passionately against them becoming mandatory: “Not being able to see the movement of lips will be extremely detrimental to a deaf person’s access to communication and will affect their mental health,” she says. “They will have no understanding of what is being ‘said’ to them, and will feel totally excluded from conversation.”
More than five percent of the world’s population, or 12 million people in the UK, have a hearing loss of some degree. “Probably half use lipreading as an aid – that’s about one-in-six people in the UK,” says Jeremy Freeman, 46, from Borehamwood, a business manager at SmartGiving and an expert witness lipreader. “I rely on reading lips 95 percent of the time,” he adds. “If everyone wears masks it will be extremely isolating and depressing for me.”
Lipreading – the ability to recognise lip shapes and patterns and to use context to fill in gaps in conversation – is an essential part of communication for many of those with hearing loss.
“People who are deaf or have hearing loss rely heavily on visual cues,” says Francsca Oliver, an audiology specialist at charity Action on Hearing Loss. “These include body language, gestures, facial expressions and lipreading. Being able to see lip patterns and facial expressions is also vital for those who communicate through British Sign Language
“If you can’t see someone’s lips, words which sound similar but have different meanings become very difficult to distinguish, leading to a breakdown in communication. And during this scary crisis, communication is key. We have already heard from frontline workers in the NHS who are struggling to communicate with their colleagues when they are wearing masks. Day-to-day life may also become significantly more difficult if masks are mandatory.” Retired lipreading teacher Ingrid Sellman, from the Jewish Deaf Association, says deaf people might even be at physical risk because of the use of masks. “Those who are dependent upon lipreading are likely to avoid conversation with mask wearers, and might be severely disadvantaged if admitted to hospital.”
There is an apparently simple solution to this problem: transparent masks, or those with a see-through area that doesn’t conceal the mouth. Unfortunately, to date, in the UK there are no known suppliers of transparent masks.
In the US, Ashley Lawrence, a 21-year- old studying education for the deaf and hard of hearing, has designed a face mask with a clear window, first using a set of spare bed- sheets which she sewed with her mother. She launched a GoFundMe campaign and offered masks free to those who needed them.
Ashley has been so overwhelmed by the response that she’s no longer accepting requests, but has created a tutorial so people can make their own masks. She’s also working with a company to produce medical-grade clear masks.