Deaf people often rely heavily on lip-reading to communicate. Sara Pivac Alexander discusses what it’s like to be Deaf in a new era of mask wearing. 

I’ve been Deaf all my life and New Zealand Sign Language (NZSL) is my first language.

With non-signers, I use various communication strategies when there are no NZSL interpreters, such as writing on paper or on my phone, and online tools including email, text etc.

As for lip reading, I can only catch bits depending on the person’s mouth movements and the situation. This hasn’t really bothered me until this new era of mask wearing, which has wiped out the ability to read lips and faces.

NZSL grammar makes use of the face to add meaning. A single sign may represent several meanings – for example, “hospital”, “cake” and “association” are made with the same sign. We determine meaning based on the topic and often English mouth patterns.

Other lip and facial movements that aren’t “words” add meanings like adjectives and adverbs. Signers, therefore, need to see the whole face to get the full meaning.

Sign language conversations with masks means deaf people have to work extra hard to figure out the missing meaning. We usually take masks off when communicating with other NZSL users in non-public places, but in public where masks are required, we have to focus much more intently while conversing.

Communicating with non-signing (speaking) mask wearers in everyday situations presents even more challenges.

Before the August 2021 lockdown, my only experience of masks was on Wellington buses. I was okay with that because I used my Snapper card to hop on the bus and I didn’t have to communicate with the driver nor anyone else.

But I found the experience of plane travel quite confronting during a trip to Dunedin last year. At the airport counter I had to ask the staff to write things down.

At security, the guard seemed to be speaking to me, but I could only guess what they were saying behind a mask. Did they want me to take my jacket off? Is there something in my bag that shouldn’t be there? Are there coins in my pockets?

I pointed at my ears to indicate “I’m Deaf” and worked out that they wanted me to remove my laptop. I’m not a great lip reader but after that episode I realised how much I rely on lip reading when I’m out and about.

Lips not only convey words, but other meanings: a smile can be interpreted as “hello” or a sign I’m doing something right, e.g. “It’s all good to proceed through the X-ray”. There are masks with a clear window over the mouth, but they tend to fog up which makes them useless.

Since Delta, it has become mandatory to wear masks in public indoor places at Alert Level 2. When I first went to the mall after lockdown, I noticed my shopping experience was more stressful. When a shop assistant was looking at me, I wasn’t sure if they were trying to talk to me so I just gestured a “thumbs up” to let them know I am Deaf.

Some shop assistants are helpful, removing their masks to mouth something from a distance or using gestures or getting a pen and paper. Others don’t understand and keep talking behind their mask, which is quite frustrating.

I use an app on my phone called BIG, to write a request like ‘HOT CHOCOLATE’ and show this to the person at the counter. But it would be helpful if all shop assistants and frontline workers knew at least some key signs, used gestures and pointing more.

Masks make it more difficult than usual to communicate with hearing people in my neighbourhood who don’t know NZSL, and take away those small moments of connection with others.

Pre-mask days, when I walked past people on the street I would usually smile instead of saying hello. With a mask, it feels unfriendly to just walk past and I hope they can at least see my eyes twinkling.

I wave but I’m not sure if they know I’m saying hello, and waving at a stranger is unusual in hearing culture.

I enjoy reading people’s faces but masks make people expressionless and everyone seems more “distant”. Now I’m not sure if strangers are trying to talk to me or not. Do they think I’m ignoring them on purpose? I once lived in Argentina for a few months and loved how naturally people used their hands to communicate, whereas Anglo-Saxon cultures are more reserved about doing that.

Since mask wearing has become the norm, I feel less enthusiastic about attending events where everyone is wearing masks and I’m the only Deaf person. For example, I asked another parent to take my son to the rugby prize giving.

I teach NZSL at the university, and there is no voice used in my classes. When students returned in Level 2, they had their masks on and had to focus for two hours at a time trying to follow NZSL only by seeing hands. Students said it was more difficult, but they understood it was necessary.

Teaching online without masks is possible, but it’s a “flat” experience on screen without students being able to move around and practise communicating in different activities.

It must be even more difficult for hard of hearing people who do not know NZSL and rely exclusively on lip reading and hearing aids. As Hearing New Zealand president Dr Lisa Seerup says, masks are a “necessary evil”, as even transparent masks cause voices to be muffled.

Visible faces are crucial to deaf people to maintain that human bond, enrich communication and give meaning to conversation.

Sara Pivac Alexander is a Senior Professional Teaching Fellow in the School of Linguistics and Applied Language Studies at Te Herenga Waka – Victoria University of Wellington.

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