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Masks can help save us from Covid but are not without their problems, especially for the deaf community.
In this article Laura MacTaggart, who has family in Inveraray and was born with hearing loss, reflects in her own words how the pandemic and the need to wear masks for protection has thrown another complicated challenge her way.
‘Having a conversation with someone wearing a face covering is, to me and others with
partial hearing loss, like having water in your ear after swimming and waiting for it to pop. But it is not only the sound quality that has deteriorated. Now I can no longer see the lip patterns which give me the best hints about what is being said. My verbal, visual and social cues are masked in a fog of miscommunication.
My heart pounds with dread and a sense of trepidation while my mind races ahead – how I am going to handle this encounter?’
When First Minister Nicola Sturgeon announced in July 2020 that face coverings were
to become mandatory, the prospect of partly hidden faces filled the 31-year-old with anxiety
She writes: ‘The vital cues of communication which I rely on daily – lipreading and facial expressions – were soon to be obscured by a shroud of fabric.
Prior to the pandemic, with my hair covering both my hearing aids and facing the person I’m speaking to, if you did not know me, you probably would not realise I have a hearing loss.
‘The appearance of face coverings, for me, brought a sudden loss of control.
Before masks arrived, if I missed hearing something, I could quickly work out by lipreading what had been said from the words I caught either side, and make my own educated guess. Lipreading has always been my access route to the world of fluent conversation. Now, that avenue is closed.
‘The deaf and hearing worlds have always orbited each other in wary coexistence, but in the pandemic they were drifting further apart. I consider myself to be in a ‘grey area’ between the two communities. British Sign Language is not my first language, as it is for the profoundly deaf – although I do have some knowledge of it – yet because I have a hearing loss, I am not fully a part of the hearing world.
‘It can be an isolating position at times, and I know I am one of many who feel like this.
Navigating my way through our newly-masked society comes with extra difficulties that I am still learning to cope with.
‘There were times when I’d notice someone I knew in the street or a shop, our eyes would meet and they would hurry past pretending we hadn’t seen each other. Sometimes I could read from their body language that their behaviour stemmed from fear, but at other times I knew it was because they simply did not want to make the effort of lowering their mask to engage in small talk.
‘Before Covid, I would enjoy a passing chat. Now, there is a feeling of disappointment at
missing out on friendly banter, but also some relief that I don’t have to go through the
awkward struggle of masked dialogue.
‘It has been a fine line judging the best way to communicate in crowded places. Most people, if I explain that I lipread, are happy to oblige and briefly remove their masks. However, they would often edge closer, maskless, to speak to me. Conscious of social distancing, I would take a step back, then they would step forward – it’s like some strange dance!
‘The deaf community has always faced its own special challenges and learned to deal with them. Now, it looks like masks are going to be with us for a considerable time, even after vaccinations. But with better awareness of the complications that masks cause to
lipreaders, and a little patience from the hearing community, I’m hopeful we can get through this together.’
Caption: Laura MacTaggart writes from her own experience about the extra challenge wearing masks to keep safe from Covid can bring to the deaf community