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Face Covering Requirements Amid COVID-19 Pandemic Pose Challenges To The Deaf Community, Hearing And Speech Agency CEO Says

BALTIMORE (WJZ) -- As masks continue to be required in public places, stores and offices that are about to reopen, the deaf community is expressing difficulty communicating without the ability to lipread and see a person's facial expression.

Fortunately, as Gov. Larry Hogan and Mayor Jack Young address the public with coronavirus updates, they have had a sign language interpreter present.

The person signing at these press conferences is often the only person without a face covering on because they use their lips and facial expression when signing for the deaf and hard-of-hearing community.


For much of the public, those things are missing from a conversation. Erin Stauder, the Executive Director and CEO of the Hearing and Speech Agency (HASA), said it has been a real challenge for the people they serve.

"What information they're getting when masked up is different than what they're getting without masks on," Stauder said.

Stauder said the center understands why masks are needed for public health and safety, but she adds covering so much of one's face can cut down on the ability to connect, especially with someone who cannot hear or cannot hear well.

"You've lost some of the sound component, it's more muffled, and you've lost the ability to lipread," Stauder said. "With social distancing, your communication partner is now six feet away."

Stauder said some sign language also requires you to touch your face or mouth, and now that is also strongly discouraged. She said older adults are calling the center, worried they are missing out on information.

She said they call the center saying: "I thought my hearing was okay, but I'm realizing I have additional challenges when I'm missing out on non-verbal-cues on the lip reading."

At Birgham and Women's Hospital in Boston, healthcare professionals are wearing masks with a see-through portion where one's lips would be. The Hearing and Speech Agency said they have put in for an order of these masks, but they are back ordered.

HASA said many people who wear hearing aids have damaged their devices or lost them because most masks are worn behind the ears. The center is now doing curbside pickup ad repairs so the deaf community has their device in working order.

For the latest information on coronavirus go to the Maryland Health Department's website or call 211. You can find all of WJZ's coverage on coronavirus in Maryland here.

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