BOISE — Face masks have become a part of our daily checklist before leaving the house. However, they create challenges for the deaf and hard of hearing community.
"I think everyone is experiencing that now, even people that can hear," said Steven Snow, executive director of the Idaho Council for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing,
"People don't realize how much they depend on expressions when they communicate on individuals, but it definitely is impacting the deaf and hard of hearing community more."
Beyond the inability to see expressions, masks degrade speech, which further impacts the deaf and hard of hearing community.
"There have actually been studies done, and it affects those high-frequency sounds which are really important for understanding what's being said," said Becky Larsen, an audiologist with the Idaho Educational Services for the Deaf and Blind.
There's no perfect solution, but there are a few options to improve the problem. Snow says the most popular is having pen and paper on hand, but that option also comes with challenges.
"Many people don't want to touch paper and pen and pass that between people right now because of the pandemic," said Snow,
"the next popular alternative is using a texting app on your phone, and there are some apps that can actually enlarge texts so an individual who is deaf or hard of hearing could type it out in the app and enlarge it so someone could read it from a few feet away."
Another option is transparent face masks.
"I'm hoping that with various providers such as doctors who frequently see deaf and hard of hearing patients, I would hope that those providers would be willing to use these clear face masks such as doctors, dentists and so on, that frequently work with deaf and hard of hearing individuals so the patients could understand them," said Snow,
"Unfortunately, it's hard to do this for individuals who have shorter interactions or unforeseen interactions with deaf and hard of hearing people such as cashiers at a grocery store or waiters," said Snow.
It might be something for teachers to wear as well. The Idaho School for the Deaf and Blind plans to reopen in the fall, but it will look different.
"For many of our kids, they rely on some form of hearing they're maybe hard of hearing, and PPE like masks or face shields often distort sound, so we've got to figure out what that looks like," said IESBD Administrator Brian Darcy.
However, deaf students attend schools across the state, so it will take some fine-tuning to address the frustrations that come with virtual learning if other schools remain virtual.
"If the teacher is presenting material truly verbally, many of our kids can't hear it, automatic captioning doesn't necessarily work all the time, and then we have to look at those who use sign language, being able to get them the information in a timely manner so that they can participate in class," said Darcy.
If masks and virtual education remain a regular part of our society, they hope to see access for the deaf and hard of hearing community become a part of the conversation.
"It really just requires a little bit of effort to go a long way to help deaf and hard of hearing community members," said Snow.
Darcy says their campus found success with recorded zooms, which could help deaf students across the state if education remains virtual in some capacity. You can check out the Idaho Council for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing here for more resources and education.