‘I cannot read their lips’: The deaf community faces another communication hurdle as face masks become the new normal

Mary Beth Pagnella, who has lived with profound hearing loss most of her life, prides herself on being an excellent lip reader.

But,amid the coronavirus outbreak, reading lips has become more difficult with state and federal officials recommending, and some requiring, people to wear masks in public.

"I feel so lost and out of place because [people] are wearing masks and I cannot read their lips," Pagnella told USA TODAY. "Not being able to hear is hard enough. Now, lip reading is hard, too."

Wearing face masks has become the new normal for daily living — and it will continue to be as more states begin to loosen social distancing restrictions to reopen their economies.

It's a challenge not lost on the deaf community.

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"In American Sign Language, the grammar of the language exists in facial expression," said Peter Cook, chair of the Department of American Sign Language at Columbia College Chicago.

"So, in order to truly communicate in language, you need the facial expression," Cook, who is also deaf, told USA TODAY.

Even watching televised press conferences can be difficult, Cook said. While some local governments have ASL interpreters available, many don't — including at the near-daily White House coronavirus task force briefings.

The National Association of the Deaf and the National Council on Disability have sent letters to the White House asking for ASL interpreters to be available, CNN reported.

"So we rely on each other," said Cook. "It's been crucial for us using things like social media and even Twitter [and] apps like Marco Polo [for] keeping us connected and keeping us informed as a community."

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Many organizations, including the National Association of the Deaf, are providing services like videos with an interpreter sharing updates on COVID-19.

The Hearing, Speech & Deaf Center in Seattle, Washington, partnered with Hypernovas Productions to create a video series called "WHAT IS HAPPENING!?!?!?!?" providing coronavirus updates in ASL. The show's host, Joshua Castille, a deaf performance artist, also shares tips on things like working on your mental health during the crisis.

Lindsay Klarman, the center's executive director, told USA TODAY that they worked closely with state officials to ensure press briefings and other videos included an interpreter or closed captions.

"I think the main thing to remember is that we don't all get information the same way," Klarman said. "We don't have access to language through spoken English, and so the more that we can do to support diversity within our community, the better off we'll all be."

Mary Beth Pagnella in Alexandria, Va., created a blog called

Both Cook and Pagnella are also looking for creative ways to help their communities. One of them is by creating clear masks.

Pagnella emailed a college student in Kentucky who created reusable clear masks for the deaf and hard of hearing. Ashley Lawrence, a student at Eastern Kentucky University studying education for the deaf and hard of hearing, created a GoFundMe account to help ship the masks for free.

The news inspired Pagnella to create masks with her friends using a how-to guide by Lawrence to share with the deaf and hard to hear community in her hometown of Alexandria, Virginia. Some of them will be sent to students at Gallaudet University, a private university for the education of the deaf and hard of hearing in Washington, D.C.

"I can't sew, but I'm so willing to learn that one of my friends is going to loan a sewing machine to me," Pagnella said.

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For Cook, he's reaching out to the fashion studies department at Columbia College Chicago to have students make masks for his students, or possibly to create a class for the fall semester.

"There's a sense of collectivism and information sharing and I think that's something that has across the country really bonded the deaf community," said Cook.

"At the same time, [it is] acknowledging that there are some very critical and serious issues that we need access to as a community."

Source: https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2020/04/27/coronavirus-face-masks-deaf-communication/3037302001/

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