PETALING JAYA, Aug 21 — Face masks are undoubtedly a life-saving measure in the times of Covid-19 but the protective gear has presented some unique challenges to the deaf community.
People with hearing loss who rely on lip-reading to communicate can no longer do so now that face masks have become the new norm.
Even those who use sign language find that their understanding of one another is now impaired by face masks because they are unable to fully discern facial expressions, which are key to interpreting the context of certain signs.
In conjunction with 2020’s Merdeka Day theme of “Malaysia Prihatin”, Malay Mail spoke to the Malaysia Federation of the Deaf (MFD) to find out how face masks have affected communication for deaf and hard of hearing people during the pandemic and their hopes for more Malaysians to pick up sign language.
A barrier against viruses but also communication
MFD honorary secretary Eamiernor Zakiah Md Zuki, who is deaf, can certainly attest to the challenges that the new standard operating procedures (SOPs) have imposed on people with hearing loss.
Eamiernor recalled an incident during the earlier phase of the movement control order (MCO) where she visited a government agency to sort out some errands.
Alone and without an interpreter, Eamiernor was overwhelmed as she tried to explain to the officers that she was deaf and needed to lip-read to communicate.
“It was very difficult to figure out what people were saying because I can’t hear and I couldn’t lip-read or see what facial expressions other people were making.
“I communicated briefly with the officer through writing instead. The officer initially declined my request for her to pull down her face mask so I could see what she was saying but after our discussion, she agreed and I could finally capture what she was saying.
“Hard of hearing people can still get by because they have residual hearing but for deaf people, we base our communication entirely on facial expressions and gestures on top of lip-reading,” said Eamiernor.
MFD executive director Mohamad Sazali Sha’ari said that while face masks are essential for preventing the spread of Covid-19, deaf people have to contend with communication barriers as a result of people covering up the lower half of their faces.
He expressed regret that the government’s decision to make face masks mandatory in public spaces appeared to have been made without considering the needs and concerns of the deaf community.
“Now that face masks are part of our SOPs, we have to accept it but maybe the decision was made without having us in mind.
“It was put into place because of the urgency of the situation and concern for the welfare of the people but for us, it’s very challenging.
“Not being able to see someone’s mouth makes it difficult for us to capture what you’re trying to say and even to understand your facial expressions,” said Sazali, who is also deaf.
He added that clear face masks that allow the wearer’s lips to be visible can be a great help to deaf and hard of hearing people who rely on visual communication but such items are not readily accessible in Malaysia yet.
Until then, he encouraged Malaysians to learn sign language and facilitate fuss-free interactions between hearing and non-hearing folks.
If you’ve tuned into any of Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin’s speeches during the MCO, you might have noticed the work of sign language interpreter Tan Lee Bee in the corner of the screen.
Tan went viral on social media in May for her animated gestures and facial expressions as she translated Muhyiddin’s statements into Bahasa Isyarat Malaysia (BIM) or Malaysian Sign Language.
Sazali said he was happy to see more Malaysians showing an interest in BIM and hoped that it would pave the way for more television programmes to include sign language interpreters in their broadcasts.
“We hope that we can have sign language interpreters not just for the prime news programmes but also for any announcements, celebrations, and important occasions on television.
“We are citizens of this country too. We can see that things are opening up slowly but we need more people to become professional sign language interpreters as well.
“Because of this, I’m glad that people are more aware of sign language and that they’ve expressed an interest in learning it as well.”
During our time at MFD, the Malay Mail team also got to pick up some basic phrases in BIM as well as the signs for newly-relevant words like “virus,” “Covid-19,” “hand sanitiser,” and “face mask.”
In line with the theme of “Malaysia Prihatin,” Sazali said the rakyat should acquaint themselves with the challenges faced by the differently-abled community (OKU) and ensure that the group’s needs and concerns do not get sidelined as the country moves forward.
It’s also as simple as respecting spaces and services designated for OKU individuals, such as not parking in the disabled parking lot if you are able-bodied and do not have any OKU person travelling with you.
Embracing digital means of communication
The Covid-19 pandemic also bears an unlikely silver lining amidst the challenges it has presented to the deaf community.
For one thing, society at large has embraced video calls and virtual meetings as part of the new norm especially during the first phase of the MCO that forced many Malaysians to work from home.
This has lifted communication barriers for deaf people as people have become more accepting of the use of platforms like FaceTime, Zoom, and Skype in everyday situations.
Sazali said that a deaf patient asking to video call a sign language interpreter during a doctor’s visit is thankfully no longer seen as an odd request.
“When deaf people go to see the doctor, they would request to video call their interpreter during the visit so they can communicate more easily.
“Usually, the doctor would decline the request because they’re not comfortable with it but right now, the concept has become more commonplace and there is more acceptance.
“We’re truly happy with this change,” said Sazali.
He hopes that the widespread acceptance of video conferencing can lead to a rise in services catered to the deaf community such as remote online interpreters.
As Malaysia goes through its recovery MCO, MFD has returned to hosting sign language classes where students can learn basic words and phrases in BIM from certified course instructors.
For more information on starting your sign language journey, visit MFD’s official website.
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