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Masked mouths have deaf people asking for more than just lip service

To overcome the obvious difficulties for people who rely on lip-reading or Auslan to communicate, the deaf community has put forward solutions, such as writing on a piece of paper, using smartphone apps, wearing a see-through face shield or temporarily removing masks to speak. Melissa Hale and her husband, James, at home in Lilydale. Credit: Eddie Jim.

For 19-year-old Anida Djelosevic, who uses lip patterns and Auslan, it has been "very, very difficult" to understand what people are saying while wearing masks – particularly in the classroom, where Ms Djelosevic relies on the facial expressions and body language of interpreters.

"When they’ve got the mask on, it’s not worth it, I can’t understand," Ms Djelosevic said.

A Department of Health and Human Services spokesman said people were allowed to remove their face covering to communicate with someone who was deaf or hard of hearing but physical distance should be maintained.

Deaf Victoria and the Disability Advocacy Resource Unit say the mask rules, which apply in metropolitan Melbourne and the Mitchell Shire, require particular sensitivity for the deaf and hard-of-hearing community. Mandatory mask-wearing is raising concerns among deaf people and those hard of hearing who rely on techniques like lip reading.

Jim "Be kind. If a person tells you that they can't hear you and requests another way to communicate, please oblige," Disability Advocacy Resource Unit co-ordinator Melissa Hale said.

"Just don’t be impatient because we are all feeling pretty uncomfortable and vulnerable about this right now." Ms Hale, who is deaf, works from home but fears for people in other industries who will need to explain to everyone speaking through a mask that they can’t hear.

"The impact on our mental health having to explain time and time again is going to be catastrophic," she said.

What you can do to help deaf and hard of hearing people

  • Be patient

  • Listen when deaf people advise you how they would like to communicate

  • Wear a clear face shield

  • If they use their device to communicate, use yours to respond

  • Try using a pen and paper while keeping social distance

  • Remove your mask to communicate if necessary while keeping social distance

  • Use a speech app such as Live Transcribe or Otter

  • Use visual cues like gesture and pointing

  • Stay informed using websites such as Deaf Victoria and Expression Australia

Ms Hale has already had "bad experiences" trying to communicate with nurses and doctors in full PPE kits at COVID-19 testing clinics.

"The nurses refused to either remove their mask to talk to us, we're too busy to write stuff down, didn't have any questionnaires or information available and tried to force my 11-year-old daughter to interpret for us," she said. "I ended up having a full-blown panic attack in the waiting room because it was so terrifying."

The Instagram page isigniwander is also gaining popularity sharing educational resources for hearing people. Deaf Victoria advocacy officer Catherine Dunn said the pandemic was an opportunity for hearing people think about the needs of disability groups.

"We're now having more conversations around access, and we're really wanting to invite people who are not deaf or hard of hearing to be involved in this conversation," Ms Dunn said.

"My primary advice would be communication is about how you would like to be communicated to and vice versa. So simply ask and check in with the person that you're speaking to."

Ms Dunn sees mandatory masks as a blow to an already marginalised group.

"We've tried to participate in the community with all these barriers, and it's almost like another barrier has been put in place, another obstacle," she said.

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