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'Mask-wearing has made me feel vulnerable and anxious': how the pandemic is affecting the deaf community

Here's how you can help make things easier for the deaf community

Kate Thomas

Imagine being completely cut off from those around you and battling constant anxiety while out in public. This might sound like a reality for most people these days, but if you've ever moaned about having to wear a mask during the coronavirus pandemic, take a second to think about what it would be like if you were hearing impaired.

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In light of Deaf Awareness Week, HELLO! is shining a spotlight on how the coronavirus pandemic has negatively affected the deaf and hard of hearing. One in five members of the deaf community relies on lipreading, meaning basic tasks like the weekly shop have become impossible ever since the UK government made mask-wearing mandatory indoors.

We spoke to Camilla Arnold, a 33-year-old television series producer, who revealed she had been left feeling "deafer" than before because of the complete lack of awareness surrounding the issue.

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Camilla Arnold says the pandemic has left her feeling "deafer" than before

The challenges of mask-wearing with hearing loss

Camilla, who relies on lipreading to communicate and understand what others are saying, reveals the impact of mask-wearing on her daily life was instant. 

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She explains: "Wearing a mask has made me feel 'deafer' than before. Usually, I get by via lipreading but that coping strategy has been taken away from me completely due to the masks. When the pandemic first started, I felt vulnerable and anxious when I went out and would avoid going to the shops as I didn't want to be put in a situation where I can't communicate or understand someone.

"Panic would consume me every time I went out (I'd forget basic things such as my PIN number as I would get so flustered) and it took me a long time to work out a new coping strategy."

Camilla recalls one particularly stressful incident during a work trip to Scotland when an airline staff member rudely refused to cooperate and lower her mask so she could lipread.

She says: "I repeatedly had to tell her that I was deaf and needed to lipread as this could be important information in relation to my flight. She refused to cooperate and wouldn't let me through.

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11 million people in the UK are deaf or hard of hearing

"Eventually, after much protest from me, she rolled her eyes, took a step back and removed her mask - this was after a good five minutes - only to tell me to use the hand sanitiser next to her. A simple instruction like that took her five minutes to get across to me due to her lack of deaf awareness and refusal to cooperate. "

Raising awareness for the deaf community

Over 11 million people in the UK are deaf or hard of hearing, but there is a huge lack of awareness about what that means and how to help make daily life a little easier.

Camilla is hopeful public awareness will improve, but admits she is "extremely worried" that mask-wearing will be the new norm going forwards.

She says: "I don't want to be having to explain myself/my deafness, having to battle with people's lack of deaf awareness every time I go out. I have the basic human right to access information so the thought of living with masks for the rest of time fills me with dread.

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"I know I speak on the behalf of the millions of deaf and hard of hearing people out there. It's all about basic deaf awareness. Please be kind and mindful of our struggles. You've learned how to adapt to this new normal, but we can't 'learn' to hear."

Coping strategies to help communication

So how can you help? To start off with, simply be more mindful of others and the struggles they might be facing.

Camilla has found a "coping strategy" to help communicate, revealing she asks someone to step two metres away from her and lower their masks in order to be able to lipread, or ask them to gesture as a last resort. "Writing notes on your phone goes a long way too!", she adds.

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Amy Morton has launched a new campaign to raise awareness

"If they refuse, I've now learnt to walk away to avoid being made to feel small, incompetent or a nuisance because I can't 'hear' - luckily, this has only happened once", she says.

New campaign for Deaf Awareness Week

Amy Morton, a deaf mother-of-two, has launched a new campaign called Clarity In Communication to help raise awareness, particularly within the retail and hospitality industries.

She explains that the UK government has created a downloadable exemption card for people who are unable to communicate, which says 'Please remove your face covering so I can understand you better' - and hopes it will become more commonplace.

"One of the main issues", says Amy, "is that staff are unaware that they are allowed to temporarily remove masks to converse with those who lip read. This is to be done at a safe distance, or behind a screen, but it simply means we can order a coffee, or get our nails done, just like anyone else.

"I've recently been into many large chains, and with people refusing to lower a mask, it makes it impossible for me to do what I set out to do there. Before COVID-19, I never saw my hearing loss as a disability, but now I do."

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Supporting this important campaign is easy: Share on social and tag businesses who you would like to see get involved. If you are a business, download the poster and speak to your team. Visit livingwithhearingloss.co.uk for more information.

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