Masks… Don’t Always Suck?

There are many, many reasons I should hate masks and the various other limitations brought by the pandemic.

I’m a deaf lipreader. While I’m part of the deaf community, too, my everyday life is full of lipreading; with my (hearing) family, at the grocery store, when I see neighbors, etc. I need to see people’s faces in able to understand their speech.

So why am I actually finding so many things to love about wearing masks?

I recently participated in an interview with an awesome journalist, Kait Sanchez, who produced this really great article. I have no complaints about the article. She quoted me accurately, and in the correct context, and overall the article makes some excellent points about how hard this has been for deaf people.

In my responses to her questions, though, I had a whole lot to say about how counterintutive my reaction has been; that was left out. And that’s the beauty of having a blog, right?

So, here are some of my counterintuitive thoughts on masks, as a deaf lipreader, during a pandemic.

They Mess With Audionormativity

Yes, I just made up that word. I base it off of “heteronormativity” – the damaging assumption that everyone is straight. Here it means the damaging assumption that everyone is hearing.

What I probably love most about everyone wearing masks is that this assumption – or at least, the assumption that everyone can hear you perfectly and easily – is right out the window!

Some examples:

  • I am very used to people getting angry at me if I don’t understand them. If I explain that I’m deaf, sometimes (not always) they calm down. But it’s so wearying to be always braced for that anger. Why not just assume that not everyone is hearing?
  • There is so much less small talk – it’s often too much trouble, with both parties having a hard time hearing each other, especially through plexiglass like at many stores. And when it’s attempted and fades away, I don’t get the sharp looks and frowns – it just fades. “Oh well, it didn’t work. That happens.”
  • So much more signage! People can just point to a sign with a policy, say, rather than having to explain it over and over again, via a modality (voice) that often doesn’t work.
  • So many more gestures! This is the single most welcome thing, how much people can get across with gestures if they are just willing to do so! Both expressive and receptive.

It is both delightful and galling. People could have been doing this all along, but they just haven’t been.

They Force Me to Stop Caring So Much About “Passing”

One of the themes I deal with in my book (WIP) is that deaf people get so much positive feedback for passing as hearing, for doing “so well;” and we get so much negative feedback for “giving up,” for “needing” accommodations. It’s a process to shed that. I thought I was further along than apparently I really was.

Over the three + decades I’ve been deaf, I haven’t wanted to (first) write on paper or (later) type on my phone to express my own thoughts, because I can use my voice to communicate just fine, and I hate that look of pity/ “Oh crap I have a Real Disabled Person here what do I do eek.”

But while my voice is pretty clear – people often think I have a cold, occasionally figure out that I’m deaf, more often just assume I’m hearing – it’s quiet. Often, people have a hard time understanding me through a mask. I was hurting my throat making sure I projected enough.

So I started writing things on my phone instead. (My Notes app is full of “Hi my name is Jenna Beacom, I’m here to pick up my book. I’m deaf. :)” and such.)

And this was… fine!

Totally fine. Made life a lot easier. The pity rolls right off of me; if for some reason it doesn’t, it’s pretty easy to confound their expectations briefly. (Go ahead and project, and use some big words and my most “speak to the manager” tone.)

They Let Me Relax A Bit In Hearing Environments

This is one of the counterintuitive-est of them all.

I’m used to scanning constantly for information, so as to be better equipped to understand something that comes up. Say I’m in the grocery store and see that someone’s baby looks very grumpy, and then their cart disappears in the next aisle. If I see everyone around me suddenly look like they’ve heard a loud noise as they look towards that aisle, I can make a decent guess that the baby just started screaming. And not that someone is being murdered, say.

This constant scanning occasionally means I catch someone’s eye. People hate that.

This leads to rapid-fire, nonverbal exchanges that go something like:

  • You’re looking at me?
  • What nope nothing important just shoppin’!
  • I saw you look at me and then realize I saw you and then look away that’s suspicious what’s up?
  • I’m harmless and pleasant nothing is up!

Things go several possible directions from here, including escalation, which has definitely happened.

This is stressful! Since I’m constantly scanning, I also work to constantly keep a pleasant expression on my face so that people are less likely to be upset.

And with masks, that’s… gone!!

I didn’t realize it until the third or fourth grocery trip with a mask on. My face felt different, in a good way, and I was less stressed in a way that didn’t make sense. Then I pieced it together. I was not working so hard to keep that pleasant expression!

People were much less likely to notice when my gaze happened to intersect with them. And if they did, there wasn’t enough of my face visible for them to make that crucial “I saw you look at me and then realize I saw you and then look away that’s suspicious what’s up” connection. My face can do whatever the heck it wants to behind that mask. Sweet liberty.

Now, this isn’t to minimize the many ways that masks are incredibly difficult for many deaf people. Including myself. While I lipread (and sign as needed) easily with my family at home, within my pod, I have had situations where I need to deal with non-signers who wear masks in ways that gesturing just can’t touch. That was deeply frustrating.

And I know that there are many people who are deaf but who do not sign, people who have been able to get enough sound with hearing aids but who can’t when people are speaking through masks, etc., etc. There are many more very serious impacts. I worked from home before the pandemic, and am lucky to not have to deal with a hearing workplace, where good options may be limited.

I’m absolutely not saying that the many deaf people who have complaints about masks are wrong. Not even slightly. Those complaints are real, and valid.

But what this has really brought home for me is how much easier the default could be for deaf people, with just a little effort from hearing people. And how masks have, surprisingly, brought that along a little bit.

It would be wonderful if that continues – and even grows? – past the time when we all need to wear masks.


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