Since the onstart of the pandemic, the Center for Disease Control declared cloth face coverings a critical tool in preventing the spread of COVID-19. Though the use of masks are helpful in protection from the virus, they can come with many drawbacks—particularly to those in the Deaf community.
University of Georgia alum Luke Bundrum was born legally deaf and grew up learning American Sign Language. Though he often relied on ASL and interpreters, Bundrum said lip-reading was also an important and useful tool of communication. For this reason, Bundrum said cloth face masks can be a “hindrance to the Deaf community.”
“We rely heavily on facial expressions, mouth movements and other facial features for communication, and face masks take away most of that,” Bundrum said. “We Deaf are deprived of full access to communication if we can’t see each other’s faces.”
Bundrum said clear face masks are the best solution when it comes to accommodating to the Deaf community during the pandemic. These masks allow visibility of the wearer’s mouth while still protecting them from potential contact with the virus. However, like cloth masks, these masks still come with their fair share of problems.
“I like clear masks better than others, as we can see faces better,” Bundrum said. “However, interpreters tend to struggle with them due to their hands hitting the mask out of place while interpreting, and the clear masks tend to fog easily.”
Another issue Bundrum noted in regards to clear face masks was their lack of widespread accessibility and use. Though available in some retailers like Walmart and Amazon, clear face masks are not commonly found or used by those outside of the Deaf community, Bundrum said.
Having similar frustrations as Bundrum, UGA alumna Amara Ede said see-through face masks should become more normalized within the hearing community. Ede serves as the executive director of Hands In!, a local nonprofit organization that produces theatrical works in ASL.
“To me, [wearing see-through masks] are as fundamental as people learning sign language and captioning videos,” Ede said. “As a hearing community we should be doing everything we can to make our world accessible to deaf and hard of hearing people.”
In regards to Hands In!, Ede said the pandemic and use of face masks has changed the landscape of theater. The pandemic has made it difficult for Ede’s program and the Deaf community as a whole to bond over the arts since performers wearing face coverings and theater capacity limits leave little space for interpreters, she said.
One organization that has been able to prevail through the obstacles of the pandemic is Extra Special People, commonly referred to as ESP. ESP is a non-profit organization based in Watkinsville that creates a community of support for individuals of all abilities, according to the ESP website.
Throughout the summer, ESP held a series of volunteer programs and camps in which participants wore clear face masks, according to junior and president of ESP at UGA Brenna Butler. At ESP, clear masks were an important factor in forming connections with participants and assuring them that they are safe and cared for during this time, Butler said.
“At the end of the day, it comes down to the fact that you need to keep everybody safe,” Butler, an environmental economics and management major, said. “And so clear face masks have been really awesome because they provide that safety but still allow you to see everybody’s big smiles at programs.”