The Challenges of Being a Deaf Lip-Reader During the COVID-19 Pandemic

The lower half of a person's face, covered in a surgical mask.

The following post is part of our series on perspectives from disabled and chronically ill people regarding COVID-19.

I’ve relied on reading lips for as long as I can remember. Cochlear implants have made it significantly easier for me to comprehend what I’m hearing, allowing me to loosen up on that particular need. However, I still rely on lip reading as a default – it’s a hard habit to break after 30+ years. I’ve never learned to sign as I never found a need to. As long as I could read lips, I was fine in the hearing world.

That’s not to say that I haven’t had moments of confusion when sound and lip reading clash. Like the time I thought my professor suddenly shifted from talking about intellectual property to rock and roll. Not only did I think it was an incredibly random non-sequitur, but I couldn’t connect the dots, which made me incredibly frustrated – until I realized my brain had interpreted it all wrong!

In this time of social distancing, staying six feet apart (or the length of two golden retrievers or three weiner dogs) is manageable for me when sitting across from one another in a quiet space. However, walking side-by-side but distanced is a test of my comprehension and coordination skills. In the span of seconds, I need to process what I’m hearing, keep track of the two golden retrievers rule, and also be mindful of others in near proximity. Oh, and not trip – which is easier said than done.

When I’m out walking by myself, chances are I’m that jerk who does not move out of the way for runners and bikers alike. This is mainly because unless you’re in my peripheral vision, you do not exist. It’s pretty easy for someone to sneak right up on me in normal conditions. But now there’s the added factor of “Hey, we’re living through a pandemic! How close did that person get to me and am I going to get sick now?”

There’s also the matter of wearing masks when we’re out in public. Cool, great, all for it – except for one thing: I have no idea what you’re saying. And chances are, you have no idea what I’m saying because my speech is a tiny bit off. The way my hearing works is I have an easier time understanding women’s voices than men’s – and I use lip reading to make sense of sound. Take one of those elements away and not only does the interaction become lengthier, but I default to feeling frustrated because I can’t do something and I don’t like being unable to do something.

I will always remember the fear and panic I felt when I was in the pre-op room awaiting my cochlear implant surgery in 2015. The nurses came in and wanted to take off my “ears” AND my glasses. Without my glasses, I can only make out vague shapes and colors. While I’m not blind, my vision is severely compromised. Unless the medical staff were to be within kissing distance, I would have no idea what was being said or requested of me. Undergoing surgery is normally an anxious time – but losing the facilities you rely on to make sense of the world isn’t pretty. I was SO grateful when my doctor came in and rescinded the nurses’ orders and said he would personally be responsible for my eyes and ears.

I can only imagine what it must be like to be hospitalized right now as a deaf person, to be in a precarious scenario and feel that loss of being able to comprehend and take in the world. Not only would it be an added layer of anxiety but there would be an extreme sense of vulnerability.

As we continue to navigate through this pandemic, we need to be mindful of communication access. If you’re out running, walking, or biking and notice someone in your path who has not moved out of the way, move around them – keeping a safe distance of course. If you’re hosting a meeting with multiple speakers, ensure the platform works with live captioning. For those who are essential workers and find yourselves interacting with a deaf or hard of hearing individual, consider keeping a large notepad around so you can communicate via the written word. If you’re comfortable sharing phone numbers, texting is an option as well. And of course, be sure to have interpreters available for people who speak using sign language whenever possible. Now more than ever, we need to be kind, respectful, and aware that everyone has different communication access needs.

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