Bay Area deaf, hard of hearing say face masks cut off communication

Posted 33 days ago


Clark Brooke signed the word “fast” in American Sign Language while shaping his lips to indicate “very fast.”

Then he put on a cloth face mask and made the same sign.

“Now you’re losing that facial expression, the mouth emphasis,” he said in ASL through an interpreter. “The face provides the tones and emphasis for ASL. You cannot remove it and just sign.”

With health orders increasingly tightening the rules around wearing face masks in public, deaf and hard of hearing people confront a new accessibility challenge. Masks that cover the nose and mouth make lip reading impossible and hide some of the facial expressions and mouth movements, called morphemes, that ASL uses to convey emphasis, tone, affect and grammar.

“It’s weird when other deaf adults have masks on,” said Robin Horwitz, managing partner at Interpreter Now, an Oakland company that provides sign language interpreters nationwide, speaking in ASL through an interpreter. “There are certain signs that look alike but can represent two different words — it’s like, ‘Did you say this, or that?’”

Masks also hide expressions that help understand what’s going on when in public.

“As deaf people we rely on visual communications from people who don’t sign,” said Amy Salter, senior operations manager for San Francisco’s Mozzeria, a Mission District pizzeria owned and operated by deaf people, speaking in ASL through an interpreter.... (Read more)