How Masking Changed My Experience of Being Deaf

The pandemic forced me to communicate differently.

collage of masked and unmasked faces
Getty; The Atlantic

“I’m sorry for participating in the deaf apocalypse.” For a hearing friend and me, this line, delivered in sign language, became a running gag early in the pandemic. She and I had moved in as temporary “corona-roomies” during the spring of 2020. When we left our apartment and pulled our masks over our mouths, she would apologize for having to make communication even harder for me. As we ventured out into the new world of obscured faces, we joked about the deaf apocalypse again and again.

Apocalypse—such a dramatic word! Yet as The New York Times, NPR, and many other news outlets noted at the time, face masks can create challenges for deaf and hard-of-hearing people who communicate through lipreading. I was one of those people. Seemingly overnight, my long-standing approach to visual communication became unworkable. Friends’ mouths vanished. I roamed shops and streets suddenly filled with featureless people, their speech now as indecipherable as that of Charlie Brown’s invisible schoolteacher: wah wah wah wah wah. Whenever I saw the masks and thought of all they had erased, I felt dismay.

More than two years later, masks have somewhat receded from public life. Yet because of my experience during the pandemic, I now occupy my deafness differently. COVID has confronted everyone, hearing or otherwise, with our own fragility—and our own creativity. I’ve had to try out new ways of expressing myself. When I meet hearing people who don’t know sign language, we’ve had to improvise forms of communication that don’t depend on speech. The results have been revelatory.

Once, that first pandemic summer, I took my bicycle into a repair shop and used my smartphone to chat with the mechanic there. On my screen, I typed, FYI, I’m deaf, here for an appointment and have a few questions for you.The technician, a hip-looking, tattooed guy in his mid-30s, took his phone out and typed, too. Our conversation was as easy as texting.

“I’m going to look at your bike chain and gears to make sure everything is working,” he tapped into his Notes app.

“Sounds good!” I replied.

He returned and updated me on what he’d found. Then he checked in about every step of the tune-up and ended our visit by asking: “Can I help you with anything else today?”

Wow, I thought, this was so much clearer than trying to read his lips. Part of me still felt uneasy as I gazed at his impenetrable face, at all the other masked faces in the shop around me. But I hadn’t misunderstood anything that the bike-shop guy had said to me that day, and I felt his courteous smile behind his mask. We’d had our conversation in a way that felt more mutually accessible than if either or both of us had had our mouths uncovered.

Lipreading has always been a misnomer for me. As I’ve discussed elsewhere, lips are not books, and deducing what that random stranger might have asked you in the coffee shop isn’t “reading.” Even for an experienced lipreader, certain bits of spoken English always wind up blurred or missing; some spoken words sail in through one eye and out the other. Lipreading involves plenty of guessing.

Still, I have a lot of practice. Given a familiar speaker and context, I can get the gist of everyday conversations. I attended speech therapy for my entire childhood. Though I would prefer to sign with others than try to lipread, I am reasonably good at passing—that is, at seeming as much like a hearing person as possible. Most of the time before the pandemic, for non-crucial interactions at least, I could get by.

In 2020, all of this changed. Suddenly, lipreading became flat-out impossible. Mask wearing affected my use of sign language as well: The facial expressions so important for conveying grammatical meaning in ASL had also vanished behind walls of fabric. I wandered the grocery-store aisles that first pandemic spring and searched the other shoppers’ faces more than the shelves, trying to figure out if anyone had said anything, even a polite “excuse me.” Missing information wasn’t the only problem deaf people worried about during those tense early months. As the novelist Sara Nović wrote at the time, hearing people “too often default to impatience or anger” when we do not understand or respond as quickly as we are expected to. I did not want to rouse any unintelligible sharp voices in the middle of the produce section. My chest would clench as I wheeled my shopping cart. I practiced my smizing and waving—or else I avoided all eye contact with other people.

Soon enough, I realized that passing was no longer a viable strategy. To survive this lipreader’s apocalypse, I needed to explain—even insist upon—my deafness in every single interaction.

At first, I practiced this disclosure awkwardly. I gestured “deaf,” my hand on my ear, followed by motions for writing things down. I started refusing to speak aloud in public. I remembered the resourcefulness many of my deaf friends already had, and I took heart. My masked interlocutors and I pointed and mimed. Some people signed “thank you” back or tried spelling out words with their fingers. I started to see what happened when lipreading was no longer an option, when hearing strangers needed to incorporate deafness into their world, too. Even if they didn’t quite know what to do, they had also glimpsed, as the bike-shop mechanic did, an opportunity to communicate differently.

Masks still feel like forbidding ramparts to me. Yet masks have also forced us to be more inventive in the ways we communicate with each other. They remove some of the onus that has long been placed upon deaf people to lipread, to pass, to catch up, to work harder, to compensate. Hearing people too must adjust their behavior. I have beckoned numerous coffee-shop baristas and airline check-in agents to write their questions to me on paper. I have downloaded the app Cardzilla, popular among deaf people for displaying large and easy-to-read text—and for inviting others to respond in text. My phone is now full of notes I've typed to past strangers. I have asked office receptionists to talk into a speech-recognition app; we gaze at my phone together as it transcribes their words. I spend less time trying to assemble spoken fragments into coherent meaning, more time considering everything my body can say.

In environments where masks remain in use, I spend less energy answering the common question “Can you read my lips?” Masks make it obvious when I can’t. They help banish the idea that one person can single-handedly overcome the challenges of deafness.

As the pandemic wore on, I saw nuanced conversations emerge among hearing friends and acquaintances who in the past had frequently relied on my willingness to try to read their lips. Some hearing friends have told me that they also struggle, though to a far lesser extent, to understand people when they cannot see their face. Other hearing friends have taken their extra time at home to learn more ASL, either informally or through classes on Zoom, or they’ve started following more deaf-related accounts on social media. Many of them have done so on their own, without my nudging them.

Now, as we return to an everyday existence where more human faces are more routinely visible, I still use my lipreading skills. But I don’t always. Sometimes, especially during customer-service interactions or conversations with people I do not know very well, I still pull out my phone and let my hearing interlocutor know that I am deaf and I’d rather type back and forth. I am more practiced at it now. They are less often taken by surprise.

To be sure, the deafness-disclosure dance can be exhausting. It does not always work like I want it to. I’ve had masked moments when, no matter how hard I tried to inform a restaurant server that I did not understand and they should write down their question, they just kept talking. I’ve missed plenty of remarks from well-intended strangers in airports, then signed “deaf” and received blank or pitying stares in return. I’ve wished that, instead of me needing to pull my phone out or search for pen and paper in my bag, the person in front of me knew ASL. I’ve walked out of coffee shops without ordering anything at all, simply because I couldn’t cut through the wah wah wah wah wah. We already have so many ways to communicate with our bodies: nodding, pointing, miming, fingerspelling. Why do some people fixate so strongly on speech?

And yet. In my experience, such spoken-language frustrations have become generally less common, perhaps because of everything the past couple of years have brought to the surface. I’ve seen the stores, including my local REI, that have started providing pen and paper near their entrance doors for anyone who prefers to write to their staff. Some state parks display signs encouraging visitors to let a park ranger know if they need more visible communication. Baristas at random coffee shops see me write down my order, and then use some ASL in response. One told me that her mother is hard of hearing and taught her how important clear communication is.

More so than in stores and other public places, masking has persisted in medical settings. But they too are adapting. This summer, I visited my doctor’s office for a routine appointment. I’d called in advance, using the video relay, to request an ASL interpreter. All went smoothly: I showed up to find my interpreter waiting by the reception area. She had a clear-paneled mask on—and, as I soon found, so did everyone else. Even the receptionist, who I only talked with for around 30 seconds, whipped one on as soon as I approached.

The gesture felt profound. “Thank you guys so much,” I said as I checked out. “You clearly all came prepared.”

“No problem,” I saw the receptionist say, her smile visible behind the plastic. “It’s really the least we can do.”

The pandemic raised many questions about equity that are far from resolved, and we should not pretend that the coronavirus has passed us by and we can return to our old ways of interacting. I never did have an end-of-pandemic mask-burning party, as an ASL-interpreter friend and I once joked we would. The masks we wore to protect ourselves reminded us of other responsibilities we have to one another. They showed us that language is a two-way street. And when everyone recognizes that language is fluid, we can all pursue richer, deeper, and fairer ways of communicating.