Effects of COVID-19 on communication with deaf people in Europe

The COVID-19 pandemic has drastically changed the everyday lives of people all over the world. They have to cover their mouths and noses in many environments in order to protect their health and that of others. Although this is regarded as uncomfortable by many, for some groups this makes life even more difficult. Hearing people complain that wearing a mask sometimes makes communication harder, because the voice of the speaker gets muffled. What about people who are hard-of-hearing or deaf? They depend on watching their opposite’s facial expressions and reading their lips to understand what they are saying. Lip-reading is not easy under the best of circumstances, but even if you excel at it (as some people do), it is impossible to read the lips of a person that is wearing a mask. Moreover, facial expressions are an integral part of sign languages, expressing not only emotions but also featuring in sign language grammar. The same holds for mouthing – that is, forming words with your mouth, usually without actually pronouncing them (although mouthing is used in some sign languages more than in others) and mouth gestures like blowing cheeks up. Take a simple example from the experience of our Deaf colleagues: ordering a sandwich in a shop is easy, but what if the masked employee wants to tell you that the one you wanted is sold out and tries to communicate that to you while behind you others are clamouring for you to hurry up? Or what about sign language courses for beginners, where the teachers need to see the facial expressions and the mouthing of the participants?

Some time ago, it seemed that there was an easy solution to such problems: transparent face shields which not only allow the wearer to breathe more freely, but also keep the lower part of their face visible. Switching to face shields wherever hard-of-hearing or Deaf people were concerned, offered a way out of this dilemma. For instance, at Klagenfurt University we arranged for face shields for all members of our unit to communicate with each other by using Austrian Sign Language (Deaf, hard-of-hearing and hearing) and also for all the students who would attend our Austrian Sign Language classes.

Then scientists found out that the visors do not keep aerosols from reaching other people and our university recommended using face masks instead of them. As teaching sign language to beginners is very hard to do with everyone wearing face masks, in Klagenfurt we managed to get special regulations for the sign language classes: students were allowed to take off their masks for a brief period of time (10 mins), so that the Deaf teachers could see their faces while they are practising new signs and/or signing to others. During the explanations (i.e. a more theoretical part where only the teacher signs), the masks had to stay on; teachers are allowed to take off the masks during all lectures, as there is a greater distance between them and the students (one row of tables was taken out). The classroom needs to be aired afterwards. There were similar regulations for everyday communication between Deaf and hearing colleagues: if enough distance was kept, a visor could be used instead of a face mask. In Austria, face shields were deemed too dangerous and have been banned since 7th Nov, 2020. Since the end of November, there is an exception for deaf and hard-of-hearing people. If they have a disability pass, they and their communication partners are exempt from wearing a mask. Clear masks are also possible. In other countries, such as Italy, alternative solutions are found in regular masks with a transparent window. However, these masks are not always certified by medical authorities, thus not always allowed in public educational spaces such as public schools and universities.

Related with this, local Deaf associations are working towards a greater awareness in the general population about the specific needs of Deaf people in these difficult times. As early as in May 2020, shortly after the Italian lockdown loosened up, Emergenza Sordi ASP (collaborating in this project with ISSR, Italy) wrote a formal letter to the Italian Prime Minister, and all relevant ministries, suggesting the adoption of clear/windowed masks at least in all public offices. The answer of the Prime Minister came quick, with a mention to the contents of the letter and the public invitation to use these kinds of masks in all public situations. The final solution is far to come, but the prompt reply by all parties involved and the rapid shift to other solutions made available by technology is giving Sign Language and Deaf inclusion issues a way to speak loudly about its needs.

Finally, online courses are also possible (during the spring semester, everything was switched to online teaching). However, direct interaction between sign language teacher and students is preferable by far, as the students will learn the language better when they are watching the teacher signing “live” to them and not just virtually or, even more difficult, in pre-recorded videos.

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