“I am Deaf. I cannot lip-read through your mask. To communicate with me, please be patient and use your mobile phone or pen and paper.”
Those are the sentences printed on a badge many Deaf and hard-of-hearing people hope will make their lives easier, after a Vancouver woman’s offer to distribute the accessory went viral.
Musician Naomi Grace was moved to put her allyship into action after reading a social media post from a Deaf friend who was frustrated by the challenges of talking to people wearing masks and wondered if having a badge that stated her identity would help.
“I’m really grateful for her pointing this out because it helps me know where/how I can do better,” Grace wrote in a Facebook post. Her offer to mail out badges for anyone in need quickly racked up over 400 comments and countless private messages, leading Grace to open up a Google Form to make the process smoother.
Grace has also enlisted the help of friends in Toronto and Montreal to help meet the overwhelming need, with those made in Montreal available in French as well; Toronto volunteer Stephanie Duffy noted that she had 255 requests and counting for masks in her area.
Messages are from community members all over the world, many whom are asking for a badge and sharing their pandemic hurdles, or those faced by loved ones.
“My grandmum is Deaf and is anxious about getting out into the community again and not being able to lip read,” one Facebook user wrote.
“The struggle of explaining to people I have to read lips has been horrible and most people don’t remove their masks! THEY JUST KEEP TALKING,” another wrote, ending with well-deserved eyeroll emojis.
Grace told HuffPost Canada that her deeds can be done by anyone with means, as discount stores sell lanyard badge holders like the one she uses for cheap. She also encouraged fellow-hearing allies to download and print the badge’s templates.
“People who are in positions of privilege, it’s our responsibility to help bring equity because we have the power to make change,” she said.
Audism during a pandemic
Since face masks cover mouths, they are impossible to lip-read for those who know who know how to. What’s more, they hide facial movements that are integral to communicating in Canada’s sign languages, ASL and LSQ.
Many community members can share examples of audism, which refers to the societal, systemic and personal ways Deaf people are discriminated or prejudiced against. Getting ignored or being on the receiving end of rude treatment or violence after not responding to a hearing person’s words is a commonly reported occurrence.
Since the pandemic began, media coverage has highlighted how the assumptions of hearing face mask-wearers have taken a toll on Deaf and HoH people. Aside from face-to-face conversations, pandemic facets of life like the emphasis on virtual meetings that aren’t accessible, can be overwhelming to deal with.
“There’s been so many issues come through ... it’s created just not communication issues but very much mental health issues,” Marilyn Kingdon, president of the Canadian Hard of Hearing Association, told Global. “There is a lot of angst. There is a lot of frustration. There is a lot of fear.”
Badges with similar scripts have made the rounds online, along with personalized face masks that share the person’s Deaf status or needs.
Altered face masks have also popped up as a possible solution, with some products being sold with clear mouth windows or which are entirely clear. Some have been criticized for being inaccessible, as certain designs or materials fog up easily. Other see-through face masks have been commended, such as one designed by “A Quiet Place” star and Deaf actor Millie Simmonds; sales go to the U.S. organization Deaf Women of Colour and a Texas Black Lives Matter initiative for Black Deaf people.
The Canadian government has approved the use of face mask alternatives between community members and those they talk to who don’t exhibit COVID-19 symptoms.
“The communication partner can wear a clear face shield which covers to below the chin,” a federal guidance document states. “In these situations, the longer the shield the better.”
Pandemic support for Deaf Canadian communities
Hiring Deaf people for roles, such as interpretation or learning sign language from Deaf teachers like with Vancouver-based program Queer ASL, is an easy way allies can be supportive. One business is Deaf Spectrum, a Toronto-based group that offers services like workshops, interpretation bookings, private tutoring, and ASL vlogs.
Uplifting Deaf culture is another way, which can be done through engaging with artists. For example, 100 Decibels is a Deaf comedy troupe from Manitoba. They’ve shared hilarious virtual skits on pandemic life, along with an appreciation post for essential workers.
Aside from badges, hearing allies can follow in Grace’s footsteps through actions like captioning videos posted on social media or Zoom meetings, as well as educating themselves and others on Deaf issues and social causes. Changing attitudes by reminding others that not everyone is hearing can be a start.
There was a comment about the lack of live captions or an ASL interpreter. This is highly problematic and it is easy and inexpensive to address!! Zoom makes it easy to add live captions. Captions can be added to videos streamed to YouTube as well.— Emily Schettler (@eSchettler) June 9, 2020
Lastly, being aware of Deaf organizations that friends and family may want to access is important. For Black Canadians, the Black Deaf Club of Canada can be a place of social support. LGBTQ groups like Ontario Rainbow Alliance of the Deaf exist as well.
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This article originally appeared on HuffPost Canada and has been updated.