'Like my world was shut down': Mask wearing hampers lip reading, Calgary woman encourages compassion

As Canadian retailers call for shoppers to wear masks or face coverings, some in the hard of hearing community say that presents major communications challenges.

“It was like my world was shut down,” said Shayda Cummings. She’s hard of hearing and relies on lip reading for most of her daily interactions.

When medical professionals and grocery store clerks have their mouths covered by personal protective equipment she says “it is impossible,” for her to understand when they speak to her as she can’t read their lips.

On one occasion she described the challenge of going to a medical appointment.

“I finally just said ‘I’m hard of hearing please help me,’” she said. Then Cummings described how the staff wrote on a note which room she should enter.

She now brings her husband Brian along with her to the grocery store and most appointments to help her navigate.

"Be kind and be understanding that we need to always go the extra mile for people to feel connected into the world," Pederson said.

Pencil and paper

Cummings understands the importance of wearing masks as part of preventing the spread of COVID-19, and is not against their widespread use.

Instead, she hopes more Calgarians will consider carrying paper and pen with them, especially retail workers who depend on masks to protect themselves.

"Employers and employees could think of perhaps at the grocery store having a pad of paper that perhaps if the cashier is speaking to someone, they can (also) write it out."

Canada’s top medical official Dr. Teresa Tam also noted the importance of accommodating the deaf and hard of hearing community when it comes to wearing masks.

“There needs to be consideration for maybe having a clear face shield or other means,” said Dr. Tam.

“Patience and compassion is needed even when looking at mask use," she said, adding that, "Don't assume that someone who isn't wearing a mask or is wearing something different doesn't have an actual reason for it."

Those sentiments were echoed by Wissam Constantin, the vice president of governance and membership at the Canadian Association of the Deaf.

"Certainly the transparent shields would be more helpful than the full-coverage face masks," Constantin wrote, in an emailed reply to a question, "because sign language relies on facial expressions as part of its fundamentals, and some deaf or hard of hearing individuals do rely on lipreading to commmunicate. However, it is important to ensure that these masks are medically sound and will protect people as well as other kinds of masks."

"It is vital that people work together to get through this difficult time," added Constantin. "It is important that groups of Canadians are not left behind or left out of consideration when people are going about their essential daily business. For example, continuing to keep distance but making sure their faces can be made visible by lifting their masks when dealing with deaf and hard of hearing individuals."

Action being taken

Action is being taken in some parts of the country.

In Barrie, Ontario, Massimo Cucchiella has begun making and distributing masks with a clear vinyl insert over the mouth to make lip-reading possible.

"I'm glad we were able to do something for this part of the community," said Cucchiella.

Still, mask-wearing is becoming a requirement for some stores.

According to its website, CostCo Canada is advising people to wear masks when inside.

The recommendation excluded children under age two, and those unable to wear a mask due to a medical condition.

During the Friday briefing Premier Jason Kenney said 40 million non-surgical masks had arrived in Edmonton and Calgary to be widely distributed.

He said the province continues to recommend them strongly, as he doesn’t want to take a “heavy-handed” approach.