- Associated Press - Sunday, August 9, 2020

CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas (AP) - Facemasks are one of the many things being considered the new normal during the COVID-19 pandemic.

However, they present problems for one group of people: The deaf and hard of hearing.

Natasha Raisanen, 21, became hard of hearing seven years ago after she got sick the summer before her freshman year of high school.

She knows basic American Sign Language, but also reads lips to understand what others say to her. She said she recently had to quit her job at a fast-food restaurant because of facemasks.

“Without being able to read lips, my method of communication has become almost impossible,” Raisanen told the Corpus Christi Caller-Times. “Often times, when I go to the store of through the drive-thru, I have to bring someone with me just to understand what people are saying. If I go alone, it isn’t rare for employees to get upset with me for not understanding them.”



People who are deaf or hard of hearing rely on visual aids, such as body language. Using clear facial expressions and gestures when communicating with a person who is deaf or hard of hearing will help them understand what people are saying.

Toni Padilla is one of the few ASL interpreters who sign during the city’s daily COVID-19 briefings.

Padilla wears her facemask until she goes on the air to interpret and puts it back on immediately afterwards.

Sign language interpreter Toni Padilla, left, interprets for Nueces County Judge Barbara Canales during a news conference July 1, 2020 on the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The only reason I take it off is because a large portion of sign language is dependent upon the facial expressions,” Padilla said. “That’s where a lot of the grammar comes from, our expressions. That’s necessary for the full communication in sign language.”

Lesa Thomas, the executive director of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Center in Corpus Christi, estimates of 23,000 people in Nueces County are deaf or hard of hearing.

Raisanen can be counted among them.

Her doctor believes her progressive hearing loss is an auto-immune dysfunction: with her immune system began attacking her ears, instead of the virus she had at the time.

Raisanen is currently waiting to take ASL classes at Del Mar College since Texas A&M; University-Corpus Christi does not offer any programs.

Facial gestures and body language are incredibly important to her.

“It’s like context clues from a book, a lot of thing don’t make sense without them,” Raisanen said.

Thomas said the corporation’s code of ethics dictates an interpreter doesn’t have to accept an assignment if they’re uncomfortable with the situation.

“Masks serve as a barrier to COVID-19, but it also is an additional barrier to effective communication,” Thomas said. “The linguistic conventions of facial expressions and mouth movements used in American Sign Language are limited or restricted by the use of a mask.”

American Sign Language interpreter Toni Padilla translates for Corpus Christi City Manager Peter Zanoni as he speaks during a daily Public Health District COVID-19 update at City Hall.

When it comes to alternative face coverings, such as face shields, Thomas and Padilla agree they are not the best.

“Face shields can create reflections, shadows and other things that are not really acceptable on a televised assignment,” Thomas said. “If you sign, you know your hands will come up and hit the face shields, you’ll knock it off.

“The face shield is not really an appropriate way for sign language to occur, but we do have clear masks and they are now making clear masks that are washable and reusable so those are things we’re looking toward helping our interpreters with.”

Raisanen said masks with a clear covering on the mouth would be beneficial to her and others, so they can be able to possibly read lips.

“Unfortunately though, many people don’t know that these exist and the aren’t normalized,” Raisanen said. “I think it would be efficient to normalize these types of masks for people who work at essential services.”

Padilla said she personally feels safe during the press conferences, but does have an idea for future briefings.

“If there were ways to provide multiple cameras so that I could be even in a different room or a different location, that I see others doing around the country, that might make it a little safer for all concerned,” Padilla said.

Raisanen said people who are deaf or hard of hearing have an “invisible disability.”

“A good portion of people will always assume you are hearing before thinking you aren’t,” Raisanen said. “This results in speaking habits through masks which work for most people, but not our community.

“This would be a difficult reform, but essential workers could create the habit of talking louder though their masks, instead of at their normal volume.”

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Manage Newsletters

Copyright © 2020 The Washington Times, LLC.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.

 

Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide