In the time before Covid, being deaf in a hearing world was tricky, but manageable. Those of us living with hearing loss found ways to handle our interactions with hearing society, be that technology or interpreters. For the most part we vaulted our hurdles as naturally as walking. It meant adaptations and hard work but, in the main, we got along with the status quo.
But then the world changed with the arrival of Covid-19 and entirely new hurdles presented themselves; tall, mighty and unmovable. Our strategies had to adapt, and we were going to need help.
A year since the first UK National lockdown; of these new hurdles, hands down, the most difficult to deal with has been the abundance of face-masks in daily life.
They are a physical barrier which I and so many deaf and hard of hearing people are still learning to deal with — and we desperately need hearing society to learn along with us.
Deafness can be an invisible disability. There are approximately 12 million adults in the UK with a degree of hearing loss. For some of us, you’ll notice our hearing loss if you see our hearing aids, cochlear implants or Bone Anchored Hearing Aids. You might notice us signing, for others you might notice it in our speech.
However, for lots of us, you won’t notice at all. The fact that hearing loss can be invisible can often mean that we have to ‘come out’ (for want of a better turn of phrase) as deaf or hard of hearing in every new situation.
It can make it feel like the onus is on us to integrate into hearing society, which in pre-covid life could have been as easy as one quick conversation and a few adaptations, but in extraordinary times like these, that is far from the case.
We need the hearing world to know how we feel, to know how to adapt and to meet us halfway.
Like many people with hearing loss, I rely heavily on lipreading to understand and follow spoken words. My hearing aids (as with other hearing devices) amplify sounds, but to filter all those sounds I need to see lips, faces and body language to make sense of the cacophony of noise around me.
Face masks don’t just mask the lip pattern and mouth shape from me, they mask half the face, hiding expressions which show the feeling, emotion and meaning behind what is being said. I can’t read what I can’t see. To a hearing person, this is like being given a book to read, but with 4 out 5 words missing – it’s impossible to piece together any sense or meaning from such little information. To add to this, imagine you and everyone else have the same book to read together and talk about, but you are the only one for whom most of the words are missing.
You are left on the outside with no way to integrate – you can’t participate because you can’t follow. That’s life in a masked society for a person with hearing loss. We’re surrounded by people with books full of words talking quite happily, all the while our book is all but empty.
As a primary school teacher, I have a particular interest in how this ‘new normal’ is affecting the children in my care and children in general. There has been a lot in the media about the negative impact masks have had on children with hearing loss in education (especially mainstream) and how they are being excluded from learning as their teachers are wearing masks.
It has been heart-warming to see Hearing Support Services in local authorities and several charities supporting deaf people across the country, step up to offer help, support and, in some cases, funding for assistive technology to allow these children to continue to access education alongside their peers. However, it has been disheartening to see mainstream deaf and hard of hearing teachers not afforded the same concern.
As one of those teachers, doing my job has been made much harder through visors and masks, and that is with only myself and colleagues wearing them. My heart goes out to secondary colleagues with hearing loss facing a sea of masks on a daily basis.
Having returned to face-to-face teaching in a primary school this term following weeks of teaching live online, I have been reminded of how isolating it is to face colleagues in masks who can communicate with each other just fine while I feel the need to constantly apologise for not hearing, mis-hearing or for needing adaptations to be able to communicate.
Looking forward to when we begin to open things up again and the lockdown is eased, whenever that may be, I hope society recognises that we, the deaf and hard of hearing community, are on the outside and that we’re trying.
But I hope that hearing society tries too: write, text, gesture (learn some sign language) to bring deaf and hard of hearing people into the conversation.
Everyone is alone right now, but there’s no need for people to be lonely.
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