Lessons Learned from the Great Mask Dilemma

Thank you, Elaine Morse, MSW, LICSW, for collaborating on our post series about face mask communication challenges for the d/Deaf community during the COVID-19 era.

A woman smiles for the camera while crouching next to her puppy in the woods.
Elaine Morse looking delighted to communicate mask-free.
She has a new dog (rest in peace gentle giant Isabelle). Koda is a 5-month-old Newfie in training to be a therapy dog.

Now that we are both vaccinated, Elaine and I went on our first mask-free dog walk together in a very long time. Elaine is a friend and a Deaf therapist who works with d/Deaf children and adults. She has teamed with this blog twice to dive deep into the Great Mask Dilemma: Staying Safe and Communicating While Deaf.

It was a pleasure for me to talk without thoughtlessly wearing my mask, forgetting (as I’m wont to do) that masks don’t work for lip reading. More than once, I’ve watched her eyes dim when I’d forget to back up and remove my mask in the trail parking lot (there’s a reason we haven’t walked in months). Instead, we hugged, and I got to pet her new puppy.

How’s it going as a Zoom therapist? I guess it’s a pretty easy transition for “talk” therapy, particularly with clients already used to using videophones…

I hate it so much. I will never do it again.

So this isn’t a case of Zoom solving some safety and communication access issues? It sounds like you’re not exactly on the fence

Technology is amazing, and I’m glad we had the option to use Zoom and videophones for therapy. But it’s not the same. We need human contact, and even though therapy doesn’t use human contact, there’s so much that is missing when you are not sitting in the same room looking at each other. And when the client is in their home looking at a laptop, it is so easy to lose their attention, and their interest is short-lived.

You must be so relieved to get back into your office with kids. It looks like our Vermont world is soon opening up.

But it’s not for many of my clients because kids still can’t get vaccinated. Schools plan to require masks this fall.

What has the impact been, broadly speaking, on d/Deaf students?

d/Deaf kids have adapted to masks, but that doesn’t mean that they can communicate with them on. I think they’ve adapted to not being able to understand everything going on around them and accept this as the new norm. I do see an increase in anxiety and depression in d/Deaf kids and adults. 

Are there clear masks being used successfully with kids in schools that you know of?

The kids hate clear masks, and I don’t blame them. I ask them to wear them when they work with me, but we both need breaks to wipe the sweat and moisture off our faces and to breathe! They prefer to wear cloth masks. 

Early on, we thought a clear face shield might work as a solution, and you mentioned a school in Colorado exploring having them made to abide CDC guidelines. Did that ever happen? Was that plan abandoned for safety reasons?

The face shields idea was abandoned quickly as it did not offer enough protection. However, some schools were flexible and allowed face shields or a clear mask that did not fully cover the nose if the wearer was 6 feet away (such as an interpreter). I did not feel comfortable wearing these because my work requires me to be closer to the kid at times. Now that I’m fully vaccinated, I have started to wear a clear face covering.

I notice the CDC continues to acknowledge that conventional cloth masks don’t work for everyone and adjusts its guidance for users with disabilities. But especially with the COVID-19 variants, it is very troubling there are not more solutions 14 months into this pandemic. Clear mask products have been introduced, and some with significant hype; three months ago, we heard how the Ford Motor Company was making N95 clear masks, but so far, nothing’s been released. Is there a clear mask product you prefer over others?

I prefer this clear mask because you can see the wearer’s entire face. Other masks only allow you to see a person’s mouth. However, it is hard to breathe wearing it. I have to take breaks from wearing it.

I ordered a clear mask off Indiegogo that took months to arrive. Talk about your lessons learned! It’s made from silicone, and I bought additional HEPA filter cartridges in anticipation we’d be able to go for walks and talk. But it extends into my tear ducts; I can’t wear it with my eyeglasses, and glare continues to be a serious problem. Did you adopt any new A.T. during this time, such as new apps for communication?

A woman wearing a clear form-fitting face mask outdoors.
The blog editor wearing the Leaf mask. It does not fit her well, muffles sound, and glare is a problem for face visibility.

There are some good speech-to-text apps for the iPhone that I have used this past year. Some were developed for d/Deaf people, and others were not. The one that works best and I find to be most reliable is Otter. It was developed for dictation and recording purposes. I use Otter if there is in-depth communication needed, such as at the dentist, though it didn’t work great because they wore two masks.

You’re reminding me that one discouraging bit of feedback I had to our first post was research that showed all masks, but especially masks made from plastic, significantly muffle sound. So even if I returned that Indiegogo (Leaf) mask for one that fits better, I’d end up sounding muffled, a significant barrier for speaking to people who are hard of hearing.

I prefer to just use a write-on/wipe-off pad that I found in a toy store for most communication. Otter does not understand my voice, so I sometimes have to write down what I’m saying. Deaf accent + mask = total disaster. I prefer the write-on/wipe-off low-tech solution for everyday communication.

Low-tech will always be with us. Did anything positive come out of this whole pandemic communication experience?

I want to say no and good riddance, but as a therapist, I’m supposed to point out the positives, so I’d say if anything, the pandemic has shown how adaptable humans are.

Learn More:

Your Guide to Masks (from the CDC)