“I’I’m sorry Participate in the deaf apocalypse.” For a hearing friend and I, this line, chanted in sign language, became a running gag early in the pandemic. You and I moved in in spring 2020 as temporary “corona roommates”. As we left our apartment and pulled our masks over our mouths, she apologized for making it even harder for me to communicate. As we ventured out into the new world of covered faces, we kept joking about the deaf apocalypse.
Apocalypse– such a dramatic word! But as The New York Times, NPR and many other news outlets mentioned at the time, face masks can pose challenges for deaf and hard of hearing people who communicate through lip reading. I was one of those people. Seemingly overnight, my longstanding approach to visual communication became useless. Friends’ mouths disappeared. I roamed shops and streets suddenly filled with faceless people whose language was now as unintelligible as that of Charlie Brown’s invisible schoolteacher: Wah wah wah wah wah. Whenever I saw the masks and thought of everything they had erased, I was dismayed.
More than two years later, masks have withdrawn somewhat from public life. However, based on my experiences during the pandemic, I now cast my deafness differently. COVID has confronted everyone, hearing or not, with our own fragility – and our own creativity. I had to try new ways of expressing myself. When I meet hearing people who don’t know sign language, we had to improvise forms of communication that don’t rely on language. The results were revealing.
Once, in that first summer of the pandemic, I took my bike to a workshop and chatted with the mechanic there on my smartphone. I typed on my screen “FYI, I’m deaf, here for an appointment and I have a few questions for you.” The technician, a hip-looking, tattooed guy in his 30s, pulled out his cell phone and typed as well. Our conversation was as easy as texting.
“I’ll take a look at your bike chain and gears to make sure everything is working,” he typed into his Notes app.
“Sounds good!” I answered.
He came back and informed me of what he had found. He then reviewed each step of the vote and ended our visit by asking, “Is there anything else I can help you with today?”
WowI thought, that was so much clearer than trying to read his lips. A part of me still felt uncomfortable as I watched his impenetrable face, all the other masked faces in the store around me. But I hadn’t misunderstood anything the bike dealer had said to me that day, and I could feel his polite smile behind his mask. We had conducted our conversation in a way that felt more accessible to each other than if one or both of us had our mouths uncovered.
lip reading has always was a misnomer for me. As I’ve discussed elsewhere, lips aren’t books, and inferring from what that random stranger might have asked you at the coffee shop isn’t “read.” Even for an experienced lipreader, certain parts of spoken English always remain fuzzy or missing; Some spoken words sail in through one eye and out the other. Lip reading involves a lot of guesswork.
Still, I have a lot of practice. Given a familiar speaker and context, I can understand everyday conversations. I went to speech therapy throughout my childhood. Although I’d rather sign with others than try to lip-read, I’m pretty good at passing – that is, appearing as much as a hearing person as possible. For most of the time before the pandemic, I could at least get by for non-crucial interactions.
In 2020, all of that changed. Lip reading suddenly became impossible. Wearing masks also affected my use of sign language: facial expressions, which are so important for conveying grammatical meaning in ASL, were also hidden behind cloth walls. During that first pandemic spring, I wandered the grocery store aisles, looking at the faces of fellow shoppers more than the shelves to see if anyone had said anything, even a polite “sorry.” A lack of information wasn’t the only issue deaf people worried about during those tense first months. As writer Sara Nović wrote at the time, hearing people “too often fall into impatience or anger” when we don’t understand or react as quickly as we are expected to. I didn’t want to provoke unintelligible sharp voices in the middle of the produce aisle. My chest tightened as I pushed my shopping cart. I practiced my smile and wave – or avoided all eye contact with other people.
I soon realized that passing was no longer a viable strategy. To survive the apocalypse of this lipreader, I had to explain – even insist – on my deafness in every single interaction.
At first I practiced this disclosure laboriously. I gestured “deaf,” my hand on my ear, followed by motions to write things down. I began to refuse to speak out loud in public. I remembered the ingenuity of many of my deaf friends, and I took heart. My masked interlocutors and I showed and mimed. Some people signed “thank you” or tried to spell words with their fingers. I began to see what was happening when lip reading was no longer an option, when hearing strangers needed to integrate deafness into their world as well. Even if they didn’t know exactly what to do, like the mechanic at the bike shop, they also saw a way to communicate differently.
Masks still feel like forbidding walls to me. However, masks have also forced us to be more inventive in the way we communicate with each other. They partially relieve deaf people of the obligation to lip read, pass, catch up, work harder and compensate. Even hearing people have to adapt their behavior. I’ve asked numerous coffee shop baristas and airline check-in clerks to write down their questions for me. I downloaded the Cardzilla app, which is popular with the deaf because it displays large, easy-to-read text — and invites others to respond via text. My phone is now full of notes I typed to former strangers. I asked office workers to speak into a voice recognition app; We stare together at my phone as it transcribes her words. I spend less time piecing together spoken fragments into coherent meaning and more time thinking about what my body is saying.
In environments that continue to use masks, I spend less energy answering the frequently asked question, “Can you read my lips?” Masks make it obvious when I can’t. They help banish the notion that one person can overcome the challenges of deafness single-handedly.
As the pandemic continued, I saw nuanced conversations emerging among hearing friends and acquaintances who, in the past, had often relied on my willingness to attempt to lip read them. Some hearing friends have told me that they also have difficulty, albeit to a much lesser extent, in understanding people when they cannot see their faces. Other hearing friends have taken the extra time at home to learn more ASL, either informally or through classes on Zoom, or have started following more deaf social media accounts. A lot of them did it on their own without me prodding them.
Now that we are returning to an everyday existence where more human faces are routinely visible, I still use my lip reading skills. But not always. Sometimes, especially during customer service interactions or talking to people I don’t know very well, I’ll still pull out my phone and tell my hearing conversation partner that I’m deaf and would rather type back and forth. I’m more proficient at it now. You will be surprised less often.
To be sure, The deafness disclosure dance can be exhausting. It doesn’t always work the way I want it to. I’ve had masked moments where no matter how hard I tried to tell a waiter in the restaurant that I didn’t understand him and that he should write his question down, they just kept talking. I’ve missed many remarks from well-intentioned strangers at airports, then signed them “deaf” and got blank or pitying looks in return. I wished the person in front of me knew about ASL instead of having to pull out my phone or rummage in my bag for a pen and paper. I’ve walked out of cafes without ordering anything at all, simply because I couldn’t make it Wah wah wah wah wah. We already have so many ways to communicate with our bodies: nodding, pointing, facial expressions, finger-spelling. Why do some people become so fixated on language?
And yet. In my experience, such frustrations have become less common in spoken language in general, perhaps because of everything that the past few years have brought to the surface. I’ve seen the stores, including my local REI, begin placing pen and paper near their front doors for anyone who prefers to write to their employees. Some state parks have signs urging visitors to notify a park ranger if they require more visible communication. Baristas at random coffee shops see me writing down my order and then use some ASL in response. One told me her mother is hard of hearing and taught her the importance of clear communication.
Even more than in stores and other public places, masking has continued in medical facilities. But they adapt too. This summer I visited my doctor’s office for a routine appointment. I had previously called via video relay to request an ASL interpreter. Everything went smoothly: I showed up and found my interpreter at the reception. She was wearing a see-through mask – and, as I soon found out, everyone else was too. Even the receptionist who I only spoke to for about 30 seconds whipped you up as soon as I approached.
The gesture felt deep. “Thank you guys,” I said upon checking out. “You obviously all came prepared.”
“No problem,” I saw the receptionist say, her smile showing behind the plastic. “It’s really the least we can do.”
The pandemic has raised many questions of justice that are far from resolved, and we should not pretend that the coronavirus has passed us by and that we can go back to our old ways. I never had a mask cremation party at the end of the pandemic, as an ASL interpreters friend and I once joked we would. The masks we wore to protect ourselves reminded us of other responsibilities we have towards one another. They showed us that language is not a one-way street. And when everyone realizes that language is fluent, we can all pursue richer, deeper, and fairer ways of communicating.