“I believe the government should provide clear face masks for everyone”.
Wearing a facemask when in shops and supermarkets is mandatory (exemptions apply). Wearing a face covering may reduce the risk of spreading the virus by protecting people you come into contact with. However, it presents significant challenges and serious communication issues for over nine million hard of hearing and Deaf people across the UK. Reasons include: using British Sign Language (BSL), lip reading, or relying on non-verbal cues and facial expressions to communicate. What started as a restriction in critical care settings and public transport has now spread into everyday life, and has a negative impact on the lives of Deaf people.
We asked Ruth to share her coronavirus story with us and the impact of facemasks on communication. Ruth, who lives in Exeter, was diagnosed profoundly Deaf at two years old. She communicates in her first language of BSL, and lipreads a little. Ruth provides day-to-day care to her daughter, who is diagnosed Type 1 diabetic. As her daughter’s primary carer, the coronavirus came with a multitude of challenges; taking extra care to minimise the risks, keeping healthy, and limiting time outside the home to hospital appointments.
“At first I kept busy by doing housework and just sorting stuff out. I quickly ran out of things to do, then sadly I did become rather depressed. Without my dog I would be worse off. I’m so lucky I’m able to walk my dog in the local country park and maintain social distancing. Also, thank goodness for amazing technology! I was able to chat using BSL with my family and friends on FaceTime.”
For Ruth, stepping outside to do a weekly shop, or attending one of her daughters hospital appointments, stirred feelings of nervousness and anxiety, not just because of the risk of catching the coronavirus, but also due to communication barriers. Medical practitioners, shop assistants, and public transport operatives are all now wearing face coverings, with the general public set to follow on Friday. This has made Ruth’s anxiety worse. Normally she can pick up easy lip reading of everyday speech, such as when a shop assistant asks “do you want a bag?” But with the face masks, she’s lost.
“I felt so frustrated and embarrassed that it made me feel like I just want to go home. I felt so low. Now I prefer to go out with someone else, so I can rely on them to communicate for me, which I hate… because I’m usually so independent”.
As well as a loss of independence, Ruth has felt excluded. While her daughter has been able to talk to diabetes specialists and nurses at the hospital or over FaceTime, a lack of BSL interpreter left Ruth unable to follow or take part in the conversation. She felt useless watching everyone talking about her daughter’s care, and not understanding what they were saying. Ruth wasn’t fully included.
How can we lessen the communication barrier caused by people wearing face masks, and prevent even more people feeling isolated, excluded, and frustrated?
One idea is for us all to learn simple hand gestures or British Sign Language signs. Action On Hearing Loss provides some useful tips on communicating for the general public. They have also called on the government to take action, and are working closely with them to resolve this issue. If we all started to wear clear facemasks, particularly health practioners and front line workers, this along with learning simple hand signs and gestures would make Deaf people feel more included and valued. Here at Living Options Devon we are issuing clear face masks to employees, and continue to work with other user-led groups at a national level to campaign and find a resolution.
Does Ruth think we should all be wearing clear face masks? “I believe the government should provide clear masks to everyone. It’s not just Deaf people that need them; other disabilities (e.g. learning difficulties, autism) and young children also get scared by full masks. We all need to see their facial expressions, their mouths, their smiles to reassure us, so it would help us if everyone had clear masks too. With full masks, I doubt myself, thinking “are they talking, are they angry or annoyed with me?” This isn’t helping my mental health either… it’s adding to our communication barriers and making us feel more frustrated and isolated”.