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By Prado Antolino, MA, CT/CI
Manager of Language Services

The COVID-19 pandemic has taken away a few things that we all have become painfully aware of. One thing that we don’t think about often is facial expressions. When you are Deaf and/or Hard of Hearing, and you rely on facial expressions (or lip reading), a mask feels like an insurmountable barrier.

In American Sign Language, facial expressions express both linguistic information and emotions. For example: raising your eyebrow indicates a question, and signers use their faces to express emotional content. During the pandemic, it became imperative for hospitals to find other types of facial protective equipment that would also facilitate communication for these patients: clear window masks. At Moffitt, these masks are available to patients and staff and can be requested to improve communication during the pandemic and beyond.

Caring for or interacting with Deaf and/or Hard-of-Hearing people can be more meaningful if hearing people become aware of a few recommendations. Without oversimplifying, a very important one is to ask the person what you can do to help with communication and what communication tools are most helpful to them. Others include:

  1. Don't make assumptions. Not all Deaf and/or Hard-of-Hearing people read lips; not everyone wearing a hearing aid can hear clearly, and not all Deaf and/or Hard-of-Hearing people sign.
  2. Speak clearly, at a normal pace and make sure your face and mouth are visible (a clear window mask comes in handy). Don’t cover your mouth, eat or chew while communicating with the person.
  3. Do not shout and do not exaggerate the movement of your lips, as these actions can be offensive.
  4. Maintain eye contact. If you must move or turn away, continue the conversation once you have established eye contact again.
  5. Look for an environment where it's quiet and well-lit (sitting in front of bright lights or windows can prevent the person from seeing clear facial expressions, eyes and lips).

For more information about deafness, please visit the National Association of the Deaf. Deafness is a culture, and understanding it as such, rather than as a physiologic condition, opens a rich world hardly explored by the predominant hearing culture. We invite you to learn more about it and to spread awareness.