COVID Blogs: Impact of Face Masks on Communication & Education Opportunities for Deaf People

By Karen Fischer

Gerard Buckley, a deaf resident of Rochester, New York and the President of the National Technical Institute for the Deaf (NTID) at the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT), was checking out at a local grocery store when the cashier, who was wearing a mask, asked him a question. As a deaf person, Buckley couldn’t hear her, and because she was wearing a mask, he couldn’t read her lips, either.  Buckley had to take an unorthodox approach to solve a problem that has become common during the pandemic: he pointed to his head. The word “DEAF” was printed across his hat. Upon seeing Buckley’s hat, the cashier used American Sign Language (ASL) to ask the question again, a luxury that isn’t always afforded to deaf and hearing-impaired people.

For Justin LeBlanc, a deaf resident of Chicago and a professor in Columbia College Chicago’s Fashion Studies department, a routine errand at a major hardware store ended very differently. “I tried to use a self-checkout machine and the self-checkout was closed,” LeBlanc said over a Zoom interview. “I was screamed at by an employee wearing a mask, but there was no label on the self-checkout. Apparently, they were announcing that self-checkout was closed on the intercom, but as a deaf person, I would never hear that.” It is not clear if the employee understood that LeBlanc is deaf.

The contrasting everyday experiences of  Buckley and LeBlanc are telling of a pivotal question facing deaf and hearing-impaired Americans across the country: will colleges and universities reopening for fall semester take the measures necessary to be able to accommodate hearing-impaired students and faculty as the COVID-19 pandemic continues?

The year 2020 serves as the 25th anniversary of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and the 30th anniversary of the initial passing of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The IDEA states that students with disabilities have the right to receive proactive opportunities for early intervention and special services to improve the quality of their education. The ADA mandates that colleges and universities, public or private, must provide equal access to higher education to students with disabilities. However, such accommodations are not lawfully required if they would result in excessive financial or administrative burden, meaning schools are not always mandated to adopt programs and accessibility measures for deaf and hard of hearing students. “These services are not free for school districts. That support has to be paid for,” Buckley said via Zoom interview with the aid of an ASL interpreter. “Unfortunately, even 30 years after the ADA and IDEA, mainstreaming is not where we want it to be with having a fully accessible educational system.”

There are a variety of options to create equitable systems of communication for deaf individuals in academia. For LeBlanc, one cultural shift that would improve daily life is clear written language that outlines instruction and regulation. “Right now with people wearing face masks, you cannot depend on spoken language,” says LeBlanc.

At RIT, an emphasis on Assisted Speech Recognition (ASR) applications, which are tools that translate spoken language into readable formats, has been utilized in classrooms for 15 years. On the first day of class at RIT, students are prompted by professors to take out their phone and download a free ASR application. From there, professors don microphones and begin their lectures and a transcription of the lecture is projected in real-time on the wall behind the professor. If a student has a question, they simply raise their hand, speak into their phone and the question is displayed on the front wall of the class. These transcripts are then saved and accessible to students after class. “People in Europe and China are comfortable using these ASR technologies,” Buckley said. “People in America need to be comfortable using them, too.”

Special Education Directors and Disability Services offices will have to take an active role for the reintegration of deaf students and professors into schools come fall in order for individuals to be successful in their academic pursuits. “These services need to reach out to deaf individuals or their parents,” Buckley said. “They need to ask, ‘How were Zoom classes this spring? Did your child stop coming to class or sit with a blank stare? Did your child get a D when they usually got an A before with an ASL interpreter?’ If so, there is a problem.”

To mediate communication from his hearing students wearing masks in class lectures, LeBlanc is planning to bring a sign language interpreter to translate feedback in the classroom this fall. His fundamental hope is that the COVID-19 pandemic will effect positive change and create more awareness, sensitivity, and action to integrate deaf individuals into academic settings. “In the deaf community, we’re constantly adapting and accommodating to other people,” LeBlanc said. “We’re changing to ensure that we’re getting the information we need.”

About the author

Photo of Karen Fischer, a white person with red hair. She is smiling and wearing a floral print shirt.Karen Fischer is a writer and artist currently living in Gallup, New Mexico. Her previous bylines include The Fix, New Orleans Magazine, Entropy and other publications. You can find more of Karen’s art and writing here.

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