As Schools Reopen with Mask Mandates, What about the Deaf/Hard-of-Hearing Students and Teachers?

Published August 18, 2020

Recently, I needed to visit Urgent Care. As someone who relies on lip-reading, I was concerned about my ability to communicate adequately about my health. At that time, I had only disposable masks, so I wrote on it in Sharpie: "Hard of hearing."

When I walked up to check in, I noticed the front desk administrator noticing my mask. I signed in, sat down, and waited my turn. When the door opened and a name was announced, I wasn’t sure if it was me, but then the same front-desk administrator pointed at me and nodded. So I knew she meant me.

My visit lasted about two hours, with the staff all being deliberate in their words so I could understand them.

All of this to say — my single two-hour encounter had posed a risk to me because I read lips and I could have misheard the doctor or misinterpreted a question. So what does all this mean for deaf/HOH students and teachers returning to the classroom? Are schools prepared to provide clear masks to all who may need them?

Since the pandemic took hold in March, clear face masks have been in high demand, and companies have struggled to keep up. This means people who rely on lip-reading, like me, have been left out of conversations — which are already a struggle even with lip-reading. Hard-of-hearing children need to see lips so they can learn how to lip-read, but really, all children benefit from seeing facial expressions as part of their social development.

Masks will obscure young students’ facial expressions during a critical time of social development. Hard-of-hearing students will be left out of playtime or left behind in class. Teachers who depend on lip-reading will struggle to understand and support their students. Lip-reading college students will experience increased difficulty understanding their professors, resulting in lower grades.

We talk often of the unknown impacts Covid-19 will have long term. What of the unknown impacts of an entire cohort of people left out for months, maybe even years, from socialization and learning? What impacts will we see in students’ grades or deaf teachers’ evaluation? Will lip-reading teachers be marked down because they struggle with communication? Will they even lose their jobs?

As schools reopen, they need to have clear masks on hand — lots of them — as a reasonable accommodation for teachers and their students so they can communicate as they had pre-pandemic. Teachers need to be prepared to work with parents on an IEP (individualized education program) that includes several masks for each student’s peers so that they’re not left behind on the playground or in the classroom. Since clear masks are hard to find, schools need to prepare a supply to prepare for future shortages, and they should have been doing so months ago.

Are schools prepared for this? Are teachers? Are we prepared to help hundreds of thousands of hard-of-hearing students and teachers in this pandemic?