Many protective masks inhibit communication with deaf community, UA advocate says

Many protective masks inhibit communication with deaf community, UA advocate says
Face masks are important to protect people's health during the pandemic, but they can impair communications with deaf people because facial expressions are an important part of American Sign Language. (Getty Images)

With the use of personal protective masks as a tool to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, those who are deaf have to adjust their normal means of communication.

Kent Schafer, a University of Alabama doctoral student who works with the Alabama Department of Mental Health’s Office of Deaf Services, has been a longtime advocate for the deaf community. As someone who is deaf, Schafer provides a personal perspective to his work and relates to issues in communicating with those wearing protective masks covering the mouth.

According to Schafer, American Sign Language is broken down and analyzed in the five separate features of hand shape, palm orientation, location, movement and facial expressions. When one wears a protective mask, the element of facial expression is removed.

“Capturing nonverbal facial expressions, especially those from the mouth region, is critical,” said Schafer, studying school psychology in the UA College of Education. “It can be difficult to determine if someone is happy or sad when the mouth is covered. In addition, it’s equally difficult when the adverb component of language is missing because the facial expression can’t be observed.

The five parameters of American Sign Language are hand shape, palm orientation, location, movement and facial expressions, so face masks remove one of the five. (Getty Images)

“When one of the five parameters is removed, the language can easily lead to misunderstandings. I don’t think we would all enjoy breathing with only 80% of the oxygen or missing every other word in our conversation.”

While Schafer recommends the use of clear personal protective face masks that allow the face to be completely visible, this might not be an option for some.

When adjusting to communicating with those who are deaf, Schafer said to consider that some who aren’t deaf don’t know American Sign Language while some who are deaf can’t read English. To adjust, Schafer offers several traditional and inventive communication methods to bridge the gap.

Use pen and paper to help as well as voice-to-text software available on smartphones and other devices, he said.

“We also have to consider the urgency and intent behind the message,” Schafer said. “If it’s urgent or a simple way to connect, use gestures. Consider a thumbs up or down motion to say ‘come over here,’ or pointing out what we need to put our eyes on is helpful. There is nothing more critical than the ability to connect and mediate between two languages.”

Schafer’s dissertation project aims to evaluate the psychometric properties of existing communication-skills assessments used by regional mental health centers. He believes an attitudinal barrier continues to be the biggest challenge in bridging the communication gap to improve the quality of future deaf students.

Recently named the 2020 UA School Psychology Most Outstanding Student, Schafer strives to be a research scientist by applying his findings through a series of interviews, writings or lectures related to learners and the learning process for what it means to be deaf. He is scheduled to earn his doctoral degree in May 2021 and wants to continue to advance the field of psychology in deafness after graduation.

This story originally appeared on the University of Alabama’s website.

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