Wearing masks while communicating in sign language takes away the most important part of the language: the facial expressions.
By SadieJane Hill
Wearing a mask to protect against COVID-19 helps many people, but also hinders one particular community in the process. Members of the deaf community are impacted by the virus in a different way than most people because masks that cover the mouth prevents effective communication from happening between sign language users.
Students at the University of Findlay are able to enroll in American Sign Language as a semester-long course, in which they learn the basics of ASL as a language, including the different motions that a sign makes and how to use your face and body to communicate. Those who speak and study ASL call these “non-manual markers,” and are used to give the “tone” of your voice. As with any language, ASL needs practice.
For the individuals that rely solely on ASL to communicate, the use of masks proves to be more difficult, as they cannot speak to each other through them like students can when they do not understand the material. In fact, ASL instructors at the University of Findlay say 80 percent of effective communication comes from reading one’s facial expressions and body language. When you take away their faces, the projection and impact of their signs is diminished.
Leah Brant, an ASL I instructor at the University of Findlay, says facial expressions are an important part of communication.
“It helps pick up the mood of the person,” Brant said. “You can pick up their intensity, I can read their confusion, their enthusiasm, and without it, when I am just looking at their eyes, sometimes it’s like, it’s just not enough.”
Brant provided face shields for her students to use in the classroom as opposed to face masks so that her students can see each other during the lecture and practicing. She argues that learning how to read one’s face is just as important as understanding their signing.
Treg Price, a junior nursing major at the University of Findlay, is enrolled in ASL II for the Fall 2020 semester. Price says that he does not notice any difficulty in learning the language with a mask on because he has only been in class for a few weeks but will utilize study sessions later in the semester.
Kyle Parke is also a professor at the University that teaches both ASL II and Deaf Culture. He is also a member of the Deaf Community. In addition to agreeing with Brant about the need for face shields in the classrooms, he has a unique perspective. A trip to the grocery store is now much more difficult.
Parke said from the beginning of the spread of the virus wearing a mask was understandable but people may not see the other impacts it has for some people.
“We took it, expected it, understanding that we would not have access to full communication,” He continued, “People do not realize that there are people out there, not only in schools, that cannot communicate with masks on. They are retreating onto an island, into themselves.”
Parke points out that some establishments, like hospitals, will not allow other people into the room with you when speaking to a doctor. That can be scary when doctors wear masks and do not allow an interpreter and do not provide you with paper and a pencil to write.
At the University of Findlay, ASL Club provides students with the chance to learn about the deaf community as well as basic signs that can be used in daily conversation. The first club meeting of the Fall semester will be held Thursday, Sept 10 at 8 p.m. in room 185 of the Davis Street building. Any questions about the club can be sent to its adviser, Leah Brant, at Brant@findlay.edu, or the club president, Hope Brant, at Branth@findlay.edu. The club is open for all students to attend.