This semester, I’m taking a creative nonfiction writing class, and I have come up with some really interesting content. I’ll hopefully be posting more of my essays from this class, but I felt that this one was especially relevant right now. Enjoy!

In July of 1990, the Americans with Disabilities act was signed into law. This has helped to ensure that people with disabilities have equal access to accommodations, as well as civil rights coverage. The ADA was a huge step in the right direction, but does it offer enough protections? At the start of the pandemic, the world shifted. Suddenly there were measures in place that had never been there before. Public places were sanitized regularly, social distancing guidelines were put in place, press conferences have aired almost daily with information on the pandemic, and—with a great deal of resistance—masks have become a requirement in many states. The idea is simple enough, just put on the mask and everyone is protected. Soon enough the world shifted to this new normal. What was never taken into account were the needs of those who are Deaf or hard of hearing.

It is wonderful that throughout the pandemic, major news sources have shifted to include either captions or a signed interpretation of the program. Sign language interpretations should be the norm, but they are especially imperative at a time like this, where disabled communities are left so much more vulnerable. Despite these important steps, there is one thing that has not been taken into account; how can a person who relies on lipreading possibly communicate when the entire world is masked up? Lipreading is already a difficult and oftentimes extremely inaccurate practice. Only about 60% of what is said ends up being picked up by even the most experienced lipreaders. However, many Deaf people rely on this as their primary form of communication, because in most cases, American Sign Language is not an option.

Imagine that this unreliable form of communication is your only option. Now imagine that it has been taken away from you, with no alternatives offered. Remember that this is a global pandemic, and access to information is absolutely necessary to ensure not just your own safety, but that of those around you. Picture yourself thrust into a foreign country where no one speaks the same language as you. How do you even begin to deal with this?

Interpreters are available in some spaces, but they must be requested in advance, and many businesses end up looking for ways to get around hiring them. On top of that, there’s a general shortage of interpreters. You can hire a personal interpreter, but access to language should be a basic human right, and who wants to hire someone to interpret their order at McDonalds?

 It’s a difficult situation, one where there doesn’t seem to be a clear right answer. Even if you’re not Deaf, you’ve probably noticed that it’s more difficult to understand what people are saying while wearing their masks. You’ve probably noticed some pain on your ears after a long day with a mask on. Imagine that you have hearing aids on your ears as well, adding to the pain and pressure. You’ve probably adjusted, however reluctantly, to this “new normal” and have accepted that things are going to stay this way for who knows how long. No solution has been proposed to help those who are Deaf or hard of hearing. This new normal just means more frustration and inaccessibility.

Now, I want to be very clear; I am absolutely pro-mask. I believe that masks have the power to slow the spread of this virus, and I think that the uproar against them is completely ridiculous. I am also hard of hearing and have found that wearing a mask with a hearing aid can range anywhere from uncomfortable to downright painful. I have found myself struggling to hear in many public settings because I had no idea just how much I relied on lipreading to aid in my understanding.

I’ve spoken to several friends who are in the same, miserable boat as I am. The general consensus I’ve received from my Deaf and hard of hearing friends is, “yeah, this fucking sucks”. We’ve also talked about the small victories.

“My professors have all started wearing clear masks,” one friend tells me.

“One of my professors has started signing along with the lectures,” another says.

These efforts are certainly beautiful and appreciated, but they should be available for everyone without a second thought. I’ve heard people say, “wow, I never even thought about Deaf people throughout all of this,” much more often than I’ve heard of efforts to accommodate them. We are all around you, and we are struggling. I am very lucky that my hearing loss is minor, and I’ve been able to make it through the pandemic with very few issues. So many people cannot say the same.

The ADA was passed in 1990, but here we are in 2020, still leaving those with disabilities behind. We have to rally to make clear face masks the norm, for basic sign language to be more widely known, for communication to be accessible to everyone, not just those who are able-bodied. For the foreseeable future, masks are here to stay, and we need to find a way to ensure that these masks don’t mean alienating a large portion of people. Despite physical distance being necessary, we should all be trying a little bit harder to stay connected. If there is one thing that I’ve learned throughout the pandemic, it is that we need more cooperation and togetherness, not division and isolation.

Stay tuned for more updates,

xoxo, second sister suzie

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