Hidden behind masks: People with speech, hearing disabilities struggle to communicate in COVID-19 times

Hidden behind masks: People with speech, hearing disabilities struggle to communicate in COVID-19 times
By Manish Sain, Trisha Mukherjee, Manik Gupta

New Delhi, Jun 18 () As masks covering most of the face except the eyes become the new normal, people with speech and hearing disabilities who lip read and use sign language are struggling to communicate with each other – and the outside world.


It is difficult to both understand and be understood with the masks, a critical measure to ward off COVID-19, posing a formidable communications barrier and adding another layer of complication to the lives of those who don't use words. They take – and give -- cues from facial expressions and lip reading.

"Sign language is not simply hand gestures but a combination of hand movements, facial expressions and body language," Anuj Jain, executive director of the National Association for the Deaf, told through an interpreter.

Describing the 'mask times' as a challenge, he said, "At this time, communicating online is the best way. But when we have to interact face to face, we do have to take off the masks."

According to the 2011 Indian census, there are 1.3 million people with "hearing impairment".


However, a spokesperson for the Association of Sign Language Interpreters estimates that 18 million people have speech and hearing disabilities.

With everyone donning masks in public spaces and governments penalising those who don't do so, there is no end to the problems faced by speech and hearing impaired people, said Gyanendra Purohit, director of the Indore-based Anand Service Society.

"People with hearing and speech disabilities rely on lip reading and facial expressions, especially when they are communicating with able-bodied persons," he explained.

It was because of this inability to communicate that several people were left stranded thousands of kilometres from home as India went under lockdown on March 25.

"There were instances of deaf-mute people getting beaten up by the police because they couldn't communicate. They had problems while boarding trains and buses to go back home.


"And when they reached, the quarantine centres had nobody who could understand if they needed water, food, or if they were feeling sick," the social worker told over phone, listing some of the problems faced by speech and hearing impaired persons.

After reading a news story in March about 10 speech and hearing disabled persons being stuck in Gurgaon, Purohit and his wife Monica, both sign language experts, started an online campaign to connect with more such people.

"With the help of the government we have managed to send over 350 deaf and mute people to their homes. We have been in touch with them through video calls," he added.

Some beginnings are being made to accommodate the special needs of the community.

Fast food chain KFC, among those hiring differently abled people at its outlets, has realised that communication has become a challenge for the 200 odd workers and has begun making changes.


Specially-designed posters, menu cards, writing pads and pens at counters are some of the changes made at KFC outlets across the country, Aman Lal, Chief People Officer, KFC India, told over an email interaction.

"We have ensured that it is easy for consumers to interact with these team members in the restaurant as well as with other team members.... This also ensures there's no miscommunication, especially in current scenarios when everyone is wearing masks," Lal said.

Several café chains also employ those with who have speech and hearing disabilities.

It is also imperative to make information related to the coronavirus accessible to people with disabilities.

"Another challenge that people with disabilities are facing includes their inability to access information, especially which is related to COVID-19. None of the government instructions or news are available in formats that can be accessed by those who are speech, hearing, or visually impaired," said Muralidharan, general secretary, National Platform for the Rights of the Disabled (NPRD).


An easier way to communicate would be to just remove the mask and maintain physical distance, advised Muralidharan, who goes by only one name.

As the number of COVID-29 cases continues to spiral -- with almost 3,70,000 cases in India on Thursday -- what is the solution? Training and awareness of the essential workers, creative experiments with facial masks, and cochlear implants in the longer run are some of the suggestions.

And while masks of all kinds and all price ranges have flooded markets in India, transparent masks are yet to make their presence felt in any significant way.

"In order to enable these hearing impaired people to function normally, many people have suggested the device of transparent masks. Also, the field of otolaryngology (study of diseases of ears and throat) has taken leaps of great development in order to rehabilitate the deaf population, in the way of the cochlear implant programme," said Aparna Mahajan, consultant-ENT, Fortis Escorts Hospital.

A cochlear implant is a small electronic device to stimulate the nerve for hearing.


A little compassion goes a long way, stressed Purohit.

"This whole situation is more confusing and frustrating to people with disabilities. They can easily get depressed during such times. There should be counselling sessions with sign language experts for such cases.

"There have been corona positive cases in deaf and mute people, for them the hospitals should have trained staff. If not, they should carry visual aids like images of medicine, graphic instructions for the special cases," Purohit said. MAH/TRS/MG MIN MIN MIN

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