‘It makes my day when I see people wearing transparent face masks’
- Credit: Charlotte Bond
Woodbridge deaf awareness advocate Louise Goldsmith explains why clear masks are so important – and why more people should wear them.
The pandemic has been difficult for all of us, but when masks were made mandatory back in July, those who rely on lip reading suddenly found their means of communication cut off – making the current pandemic even more isolating.
Woodbridge resident Louise Goldsmith is one of those people. Aged 25, she has been hard of hearing for nearly two decades, having been diagnosed with hearing loss when she was seven.
“There was no explanation, and the whole diagnosis was a mystery because all of my family are of hearing. The audiologists do not think I was born deaf though, because my speech is clear.”
Even in daily life pre-pandemic, communication has always been something Louise has struggled with - and she’s not alone. Statistics from the Royal National Institute for Deaf People estimates that around one in every six people in the UK has some form of hearing loss.
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“When I was younger, I always relied on my mother to communicate on my behalf – whether that was in the shops, at the bank or on the phone. If mum got chatting to someone on the street when we were out, they would usually ask me questions and I would look at her during every question to relay it back to me. I had no confidence or faith in myself.”
It wasn’t until Louise graduated from university four years ago that she began to gain a sense of independence, and saw her confidence grow.
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“I felt comfortable going out by myself. I commuted to Norwich three times a week, and it was nerve-wracking to begin with, but it soon became part of my routine. I was proud of myself for not relying on anyone else for a change, and I’ve become a lot more independent since.”
But when the 2020 coronavirus pandemic struck, Louise found herself right back at square one following the compulsory introduction of masks.
“Masks have been a bit of a nightmare, as I rely fully on being able to read someone’s lips when communicating orally. During the beginning of the pandemic, I was anxious about going to the shops by myself because it’s impossible to communicate with people when their mouths are covered.
“It does feel isolating in a sea full of masks, because it’s so difficult to understand people. I’ve often had people approach me while wearing a mask, and sometimes I feel so frustrated I usually ask my partner Jack to speak on my behalf. He then relays it back to me in speech, sign or both.
Rebuilding her confidence back up over time, Louise has been able to ask people to lower their masks, explaining that she’s a lip reader. “Surprisingly, people have been really accommodating and understanding, and have been more than happy to do this for me,” she says.
“I’ve seen a few people in shops wearing transparent face shields too and I’ve always stopped to thank them for wearing them, explaining how they benefit people like me.”
Transparent masks are similar to the more commonly-worn full fabric ones, but feature a clear plastic window in the middle for lip reading.
“I do get a lot of people doing a double take when they see me wearing one, but I’ve had some lovely comments from people who are interested and say what a great invention it is. The problem with these masks though is that they have a habit of steaming up, so I have suggested people buy ‘Muc Off’, which is an anti-fog spray that works brilliantly.”
Louise, who works as an outreach officer for Deafblind UK, adds that as deafness is classified as an ‘invisible disability’, people often don’t realise right away she is hard of hearing.
“So many people are not aware I’m deaf when I first meet them. Sometimes I wear my hair up, so people can see my blue sparkly hearing aids, but when my hair is down and they’re covered, people are less aware unless I tell them - which I have gotten better at doing.”
While the pandemic has brought about its difficulties, Louise has noticed a number of positive changes, with people now opting for more-inclusive PPE options.
“One of my local pubs, The Green Man in Tunstall, has bought clear plastic visors. I noticed every time I went in, the staff would swap their opaque masks over to transparent ones. I am so pleased that the message is getting out there - it honestly makes my day when I see people wearing transparent face shields and masks. I even had a friend buy one as she was keen to become more deaf-aware.”
For anyone who is looking to become more inclusive during the pandemic, Louise has a number of tips that can help those who are hard of hearing.
“Please be patient towards people who are deaf. I had a member of staff at one of my local shops come across as slightly rude when I explained that I was a deaf lipreader. I approached her from a distance and asked if she could help me find a product I was looking for. She answered and before I could say that I’m deaf and couldn’t understand her, she proceeded to speak. I stepped back and politely asked her to lower her mask, so I could read her lips, but she sadly refused.
“I can sympathise with people who cannot lower their masks due to health reasons or anxiety, but it is important that staff members are taught a little deaf awareness and have protocols in place in order to effectively communicate with deaf customers. For example, they could write down their response on a piece of paper - that way, the interaction will not be uncomfortable or embarrassing for either party.”
Louise also suggests learning some sign language basics, as even the smallest amount can make a real difference. “I recommend the Signature BSL Course - my partner Jack is currently studying for his Level 1 and it’s honestly helped me so much. When I struggle to understand him in busy settings, he will spell things out that I missed in BSL, or sign what he is saying in basic sign language. Before this, I found it so difficult to understand him when it was busy. It’s particularly helpful when we’re in a group, as Jack can relay the conversation to me in sign language, so I can keep up and feel less isolated.”
Earlier this year, Ipswich’s Hearing Care Centre created a number of badges that read ‘I have a hearing loss. Please speak clearly’, in order to make the general public more aware of those who suffer with hearing difficulties.
Marketing manager Adrian Rawlinson says: “The introduction of masks was the turning point really, which is why we made the badges. If you haven’t got a hearing issue, your automatic assumption isn’t going to be that someone has. By having these, both those who are and aren’t hard of hearing have found it has helped with communication during the pandemic. It’s all about making people aware.”
To find out more about Louise and her work as a deaf awareness advocate, you can find her on Twitter at @LouiseDeafAware.