Sign language

While American Sign Language is a highly effective way for those in the deaf community and hard of hearing to safely communicate during the COVID-19 pandemic, the growing use of face masks has impacted the language barrier. (Flickr image)

As Minnesotans everywhere continue to adjust to the “new normal” that is wearing face masks and practicing safe social distances, members of the community are facing additional obstacles to this way of life.

For those who are hard of hearing or part of the deaf community, the barrier between faces only enhances the language barriers already in place. Kim Barron, the director of communications at the Minnesota State Academy for the Deaf in Faribault, said that COVID-19 has not only impacted everyone’s daily life exponentially, but has further inhibited fluid communication for those who are identify as deaf or having hearing loss.

“I can’t speak for individuals who don’t use sign language, but I can speak to my own experiences and a person who uses American Sign Language,” said Barron, who was born “profoundly deaf” and identifies as a culturally deaf person and part of the deaf community. “With ASL, yes we use our hands to communicate, but facial expressions make up half of it. We use our eyebrows, eyes, mouth and our face to convey messages.”

For example, Barron explained that the word ‘sick’ can mean something different in ASL based on the speaker’s facial expression. When the sign is meant to express physical ailment, the person would also show a sad or depressed expression. If they’re trying to express that something is great or awesome, their face would show amazement. The same sign can also be used to express disgust, where they would show a disgusted expression.

Barron shared a personal example where her elder mother living in another state had to be hospitalized after a fall. Barron’s brother sent a video message to the rest of the siblings, all deaf, to try to share an update on their mother’s condition.

“Since he was in the hospital waiting room he had to wear a mask while he was signing his message to us,” Barron said. “It was very difficult for us to understand what he was trying to say with half of his facial expressions covered, I had to re-watch his video a couple of times to get the gist of the message.”

Aside from facial expressions, Barron said that face masks present another obstacle for those who may rely on reading lips. While lip-reading is never completely accurate, Barron said that those who do rely on it are inconvenienced when someone they are trying to communicate with have their mouth covered – though it is largely unavoidable given the global pandemic.

Social distancing has also impacted the way those who identify as deaf or hard of hearing communicate, with one area woman saying that it is especially hard for those a part of the deaf-blind community.

“The deaf-blind individuals who depend on touch are not able to get support they need due to social distancing,” said Chelsea Paulson, a member of the deaf community who has experienced her own difficulties with communication during a time of social distancing. “I needed some assistance and I appeared like I was carrying the plague, attempting to communicate with this poor employee, approaching and breaching the social distancing.”

Barron echoed Paulson’s concern for social distancing, adding that her husband — who is also deaf but has some hearing — has experienced direct difficulties at his job.

“He works at a store and part of his duties is stocking the shelves. He is often approached by customers looking for something and with the masks it is very challenging,” Barron said. “He relies on lip-reading and using his residual hearing and needs to move closer to the other person to understand them. But with social distancing he is unable to move closer.”

Barron said that her husband has started carrying a pen and paper around to give to customers if he can’t easily understand them, a common method of adapting for those deaf and hard of hearing during this time. Barron uses her phone to type out messages in as large a font as possible when communicating with someone who does not know ASL, as does Paulson. Barron said that post COVID-19, the phone has become a more regular part of her communication due to the additional obstacles of face masks and social distancing.

“I now stay at a safe distance and use as large of font as possible on my phone and hold it out so they can lean from where they’re standing and read my message from there,” she said. “The other person will have to take out their phone and type their message to me, which is a bit awkward.”

Paulson, who lives in Waterville, has had similar uncomfortable experiences, but tries to maintain a positive spirit and a sense of humor as everyone is learning how to maneuver in today’s society.

“I tried to order food from McDonald’s with my three children in the back of the van. I did not do the app ordering right, so the teenage employees didn’t understand what I was trying to do as the order code didn’t show up,” Paulson said. “The employee wore a mask, realized that I am deaf and resorted to gesturing. Befuddled, I drove forward and parked in the ‘order pick up’ section and figured it out. I ended up paying $30 total for my massive McDonalds’ unintentional order – but as least the chicken nuggets were good and I got my Mello Yello!”

Barron said that she’s read various articles about the production of clear masks and that she hopes that will gain popularity to help assist with the communication barrier, but for now she encourages others to consider using phone apps like InkPad or CardZilla to help bridge the language barrier. In an ideal world, Barron joked that everyone would learn sign language – to which Paulson readily agreed.

“We are more educated are more careful nowadays compared to the Spanish Flu pandemic in 1918,” Paulson said. “Just be patient and be kind — we can always wash our hands vigorously after interactions with each other.”

Reach Reporter Annie Granlund at 507-444-2378 or follow her on Twitter @OPPAnnie. ©Copyright 2020 APG Media of Southern Minnesota.

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