Masks burden the deaf

At Carel du Toit Centre, children learn spoken language through the use of hearing technology, natural learning experiences and parental guidance. Picture: KAREN WATKINS

It can be hard to understand someone if they’re wearing a mask and standing two metres away from you, even more so if you’re deaf.

Cloth masks and physical distancing stop us spreading Covid-19, but they make it difficult for the deaf and hard of hearing to read lips and facial expressions, according to Hermien Louw, an audiologist at the Carel du Toit Centre for hearing impaired children. 

Outside of lockdown, about 120 children with hearing impairment, ranging in age from 9 to just a few months, attend classes of four to 10 at the centre on the Tygerberg Hospital grounds, where they learn spoken language through the use of hearing technology, natural learning experiences and parental guidance. Dr Carel du Toit, from whom the centre takes its name, introduced the method to South Africa 47 years ago.

“Research confirms that deaf children have the same capacity as children with typical hearing, to learn to speak and integrate into a hearing society,” says  the centre’s marketing manager, Lynn Cloete. 

The deaf or hard of hearing, she says, combine the technology with lip reading and facial expressions to communicate, especially in a noisy environment, but masks obscure the mouth and half the face, so it’s impossible to read lips and very hard to read facial expressions. The mask also distorts sound coming from the speaker and physical distancing means the volume will be low. It’s also hard to read lips from two metres away.

Vera-Genevey Hlayisi, an audiology lecturer and researcher at UCT,  says human connection and communication are vital to our well being, and she suggests that those living with a child with hearing loss be more empathetic, patient and connected, especially now.

Ms Hlayisi says children with hearing impairments face even greater challenges than adults with the disability because of their shorter attention spans and  trepidation in telling someone they don’t understand. She also notes that facial expressions are a key part of communication for the deaf who use only visual communication such as sign language. 

Deaf Federation of SA (DeafSA) director Bruno Peter Nkosi Druchen says face masks can also be a source of anxiety, stress and confusion for a child with a hearing impairment and DeafSA advocates the use of face shields, instead of masks, at schools for the deaf.

The Carel Du Toit Centre needs perspex face shields, data packages to enable online communication, help with buying and distributing batteries for hearing devices, and financial support. Contact fundraising@careldutoit.co.za, or Lynn at comms@careldutoit.co.za for details.