Deaf BYU students prepare for masked communication during Fall Semester

Occupational therapist, Rowan Banks, poses with a window masks she designed in Cape Town, South Africa, Wednesday July 22, 2020. Banks was asked by her cousin who was born with Waardenburg syndrome, which causes hearing loss, to design face masks with see-through windows as she was struggling to communicate with people without seeing their lips move. These masks with the see-through windows make communication for the deaf community accessible during the coronavirus pandemic. (AP Photo/Nardus Engelbrecht)

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected the deaf community in unexpected ways.

A large portion of deaf Americans communicate using American Sign Language, which requires clear facial expressions, and some also read lips to help them understand when hearing people talk to them. Both of these methods of communication are difficult to use with everyone wearing masks.

Emilee Segura is a BYU senior studying communication disorders, and she’s the current president of the ASL club. Segura is deaf, but she has a cochlear implant that helps her hear a little bit. She said she hadn’t realized how much she relies on lip-reading until everyone started wearing masks.

“It’s basically impossible to hear unless I’m in a quiet setting just one on one and they’re aware that I’m deaf,” Segura said, “There’s just something with the sound and the movement of the lips that makes me able to hear it completely.”

Segura said she hasn’t had much trouble in the past with communicating and understanding in her classes, but she’s very concerned for Fall Semester. She said she really enjoyed doing online classes for the last half of Winter Semester because her professors didn’t have them break into discussion groups as often, and when they did, they used break-out rooms. Segura said this helped her a lot because normally when trying to discuss with classmates she has a hard time hearing them over the other students talking in the classroom.

BYU senior Hannah Larson, who studies user experience design and is deaf, says she prefers in-person classes because it’s easier to see her interpreter and professor simultaneously. (Hannah Larson)

Senior Hannah Larson, who is studying user experience design and is also deaf, said she actually prefers in-person classes to online because it’s easier for her to see her interpreters and her professor at the same time in a classroom setting, which helps with understanding.

“There are definitely some benefits of online, but personally I love my interpreters. I want to see them in person,” Larson said.

Through the BYU accessibility center, deaf students can be connected with transcribers and interpreters who attend their classes with them and either type out what is being said or sign it. Segura said she’s been working with the accessibility center to make sure her interpreters have transparent masks so that she can communicate with them.

Larson said she bought a bunch of clear masks to hand out to her interpreters, if necessary, and to her professors. She also plans on asking her professors to use closed captioning devices while they teach.

“The biggest problem with this whole thing is that one thing you could do is just ask them to take down their mask for a few seconds, but also you don’t want to ask that,” Larson said.

Segura agreed, saying that she believes masks are an important part of helping to get rid of the coronavirus and so she doesn’t want people to take them off, but she wishes that they weren’t necessary.

BYU’s mask policy requires masks in all classroom settings says there is an exception for “individuals engaged in teaching which requires learners to see facial expressions or mouth movement.” In these situations, teachers are told to wear a face shield and maintain social distancing. After the teaching it finished, the instructor should “promptly” put on a mask.

Larson’s sister, Sarah Keeler, is also deaf. Keeler is a senior studying design, and she said she’s not as concerned about understanding in her classes as she is about understanding other students in day to day interactions. She said the most helpful thing hearing people can do is to avoid getting frustrated when deaf people have trouble understanding.

“Just continue to have patience and have an open mind and be willing to work with us and find other ways to communicate,” Keeler said.

Larson agreed, saying that she really appreciates it when hearing people notice that she’s struggling and do what they can to help her understand.

“Just be willing to listen, because it’s hard for us, and if you’re willing to put in the work and effort then that means a lot,” Larson said.

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