The Major Downside of Face Masks People Aren't Talking About

Your mask could be making someone else's day much harder.

Between lost jobs and remote work, closed schools, and empty social calendars, many of us have felt our worlds become smaller as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. But one group in particular, the deaf and hard of hearing communities, has found themselves doubly disconnected from the world because of one surprising thing: face masks.

Though masks are a crucial tool in helping to lower the transmission of coronavirus, the San Francisco Chronicle reports that the widespread use of face masks has left many within the deaf community feeling disoriented and isolated: with faces covered, they're far less able to navigate everyday interactions with the help of lipreading, and the subtle cues of facial expressions.

Justin LeBlanc, an associate professor of fashion studies who is deaf, shared with the Columbia Chronicle that he has recently been reluctant to venture out in public due to the rise of masks. "Having signals from the face, body language [and] lipreading is important," LeBlanc explained. "Using something as simple as a mask [can] eliminate all that opportunity to be able to communicate." In short, without seeing someone's face, you lose a tremendous amount of information: emphasis, emotion, tone, and clarity all become obscured.

Fortunately, people are coming up with creative solutions to the problem—LeBlanc included. This summer, he will begin working on the Accessible Mask Project, which aims to design a safe and effective mask that enables better communication for the deaf and hearing impaired. Similarly, CNN recently reported that Sheri Mello, MD, an audiologist based in Raleigh, North Carolina, recently began distributing homemade masks with a clear mouth covering to her hearing impaired patients. She's had an overwhelmingly positive response from families who can now communicate better at home.

However, the key to success isn't just for those in the deaf community to wear these augmented masks—for the greatest impact, the greater community would have to wear them, too. Making this simple shift could be a profound step toward inclusivity and accessibility—and in our shrinking world, there are few more worthy goals. And to make sure you're wearing your face mask the right way, find out how the WHO Just Completely Changed Its Coronavirus Face Mask Guidelines.

Lauren Gray
Lauren Gray is a New York-based writer, editor, and consultant. Read more
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