Because COVID-19 spreads via respiratory droplets that disperse through sneezes and coughs, shielding the mouth and nose is an important weapon against the virus. But it can also hinder conversations for people who rely on reading lips. “Communication barriers are already difficult sometimes, and this makes it more difficult,” says linguist Jami Fisher, director of Penn’s American Sign Language (ASL)/Deaf Studies program.
It’s one of the trickiest aspects of this pandemic for those in the Deaf and hard-of-hearing communities, Fisher says. The challenge doesn’t stem just from misunderstandings due to wearing masks. It’s also about the dissemination of accurate and timely information, knowing who to rely on and how to assess what’s being said.
Trusted sources like the Swarthmore, Pennsylvania–based nonprofit Deaf-Hearing Communication Centre (DHCC), a Penn community partner, have filled that gap, frequently updating information on its social media channels and websites. Governors and mayors are more frequently using Certified Deaf Interpreters (CDI) during press briefings, and Penn alum Kate Panzer, who graduated in 2018, started a project with DHCC to sew masks with clear fronts to offer both lip-reading access and protection.
Like much of the country, Panzer has stayed inside for the past several months. When the pandemic started to worsen, she temporarily left a research position in Michigan and returned to her childhood home in Media, Pennsylvania. And like many people, she wanted to give back.
At Penn, she’d taken several American Sign Language classes through the program Fisher runs, so when she read an article about a student in Kentucky making clear-fronted masks, it piqued her interest. She reached out to Fisher, who connected her with Kyle Rosenberg, DHCC’s community development and outreach coordinator.
As a volunteer, she shared her mask idea with Rosenberg. “Even in normal times, the Deaf community really struggles with clear communication,” says Rosenberg, who is himself deaf. “ASL is very visual. It relies on body language. Covering up the mouth with a mask makes communication 10 times harder.”
Rosenberg helped Panzer tweak a design and create a process to reach the community, and they took their first order on April 23. Since then, they’ve shipped about 450 masks, with a backlog of requests for hundreds more.
Though the response has been overwhelmingly positive, when constructive feedback comes in, they do take it to heart, Panzer says. For example, when mask-wearers told them that the elastic bands they’d been using rubbed uncomfortably against hearing aids, they switched to fabric ties that go around the back of the head. The masks are not medical grade, so they can’t be used in a hospital setting, but Panzer says her goal was to improve everyday interactions.
“When you can only see the eyes, it takes a lot out of expressive communication for Deaf people,” says Fisher, whose parents and one brother are deaf. “It’s really important that they be able to more fully convey facial expressions and mouth movements that influence meaning.” Masks with clear fronts help.
So do high-quality interpreters, particularly during press briefings and other situations offering updates about the coronavirus situation. Rosenberg and Fisher both say that the past several months, as the COVID-19 situation has unfolded, communication from state and local officials has been stellar, in stark relief to what’s been provided at the federal level. “Because of the coronavirus, more people are providing access to interpreters, either picture-in-screen or live,” Rosenberg says.
Most of these professionals are Certified Deaf Interpreters who work with an invisible team behind the scenes, Fisher says. A hearing interpreter listens to what the official says, then signs that information to a second interpreter, who is typically deaf or whose first language is ASL. The person who appears on screen—the CDI—then relays the news to viewers.
“When a hearing person interprets, information can inadvertently be influenced by the structure of the English language,” which differs from ASL in certain ways, Fisher adds. “The deaf interpreter catches the nuance and can offer a clear interpretation of what’s being said. This is a huge opportunity for deaf people to not only be represented, but to be getting information from deaf interpreters, too,” she says.
Beyond what governments are doing, DHCC and other organizations within the Deaf community—Fisher mentions the Daily Moth ASL news summary program—have stepped up to ensure timely dissemination of accurate information. They’re also working to engage and entertain, with events like those DHCC has hosted on social media, which included a magician and an improv show, as well as providing a community-response hotline where people can call with questions or simply to talk.
And, of course, there’s Panzer’s mask initiative. “Honestly, I’m looking forward to the last day we have to make a mask because that means this is going to be over with. Deaf people are feeling isolated, like many people are,” Rosenberg says. “But the mask project is fantastic. The volunteers, the sewing team are great. The power of social media is pretty evident.”
To Fisher, the sum of all these individual parts shines a light in a dark and challenging time. “People are coming together in unexpected ways,” she says, “ways that we never thought we had to or could, providing respite and entertainment in ways that we didn’t think we needed to.”
Kate Panzer earned her bachelor’s degree in 2018 from the Department of Bioengineering in the School of Engineering and Applied Science at the University of Pennsylvania. She is currently a disability health and family medicine research assistant at Michigan Medicine at the University of Michigan.
Kyle Rosenberg is the community development and outreach coordinator for the Deaf-Hearing Communication Centre based in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania.