How COVID-19 affects the deaf community

The coronavirus pandemic has affected many people, including the deaf community. Students who are hearing impaired, along with those who are taking American Sign Language courses have had to adjust their lives completely to be able to adapt to the current pandemic.

With the current statewide mask mandate requiring the wearing of masks, it is harder for those students who read facial expressions and lips to communicate with their peers and professors.

According to the National Center for Health Statistics, 28 million Americans, about 10 percent of the population, have some degree of hearing loss. About two million of those people are considered deaf. This means that they cannot hear everyday sounds or even speech, even with a hearing aid.

According to Start ASL, American Sign Language is 1 of the top 3 most used languages in the United States, therefore, wearing a mask affects how a person who is deaf may interpret what is being said. ASL is not just about using your hands. Some signs can mean multiple things, but with the use of facial expressions, the person who is listening is able to have a better understanding of what is being said.

Madison Harbison, a sophomore ASL major at Eastern Kentucky University, said that one struggle she faced as an ASL major during the current COVID-19 pandemic is not being able to read the facial expression of the other person.

“Facial expressions can change the entire conversation,” she said.

Another struggle that Harbison is faced with during her online classes is that most of her professors are deaf, and during class, their microphones are muted.

“For example, if the professor is signing, and someone is unmuted and makes a noise, the speaker view on Zoom will change to whomever made the noise,” she said.

Harbison was introduced to the deaf community through her friend, whose grandparents were deaf, and her friend’s mother who is hard of hearing along with being an interpreter.

Kentucky Governor, Andy Beshear stated in his executive order that “any person who is deaf or hard of hearing and is actively communicating, or any person who is actively communicating with someone who is deaf or hard of hearing, and is able to maintain a safe distance of six feet” are exempted from wearing a mask. On campus, every student and employee is required to wear a face covering when entering a building, or when social distancing cannot be observed.

Ashley Puckett, a senior at EKU who is studying to be a midwife, is deaf. When interviewing with Puckett, the conversation was done over Zoom through the chat box.

Puckett stated that the coronavirus pandemic has “changed her life” because, before the pandemic, many students and other peers struggled to communicate with her because she was deaf. As the pandemic continues, she always asks other peers to write what they are saying, and to those who refuse, she asks them to lower their masks to be able to read their lips.

Classes have also been tough for Puckett. With having online classes, not all of her professors have captions for their pre-recorded lectures or Zoom calls, therefore, she has to wait a week for the transcripts, which leaves her a week behind in all of her classes.

According to the EKU Center for Student Accessibility website, each student who is hard of hearing will be given a mask that has a clear plastic inlay, to allow the student’s face to be more visible. Puckett was able to get one of those masks but does not think they are as helpful.

“The fog from the masks makes it harder to see people’s lips, therefore, there is no point in using them,” Puckett said.

With communication being tough, Puckett explained that the current pandemic has changed people’s way of communicating. For example, they are more willing to use gestures, body language, or even cell phones to help communicate.

Puckett said, “I want people to be willing to communicate with us and doesn’t let our deafness bother them.”

Puckett plans to graduate in December.

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