By Valerie James Abbott
I was recently at an in-office medical appointment with my 15-year-old daughter, Bridget. She is hard-of-hearing and wears hearing aids – all day, every day. During COVID-19, at least here in Virginia, she is now also required to wear a face mask just about everywhere we go. And, so is everyone.
Make no mistake – we are a family of mask wearers. Whether we are picking up milk from the grocery store or waiting for a doctor to enter the examining room, we have our masks on. Some of them are floral. Some of them have polka dots. Some of them are made of pale blue, clothlike paper. But, none of them are see through.
This may not be a big deal to some people. We are all struggling to hear each other from behind muffled fabric. From six feet away, we raise our voices or lean in and try to glean content, context or emotions from the eyeballs staring back at us. We miss a word or two here and there, but we can mostly communicate with others. They can mostly communicate with us.
Well, maybe not.
I noticed during this recent doctor appointment that the physician’s voice was raised as he asked my daughter questions. But, he did not slow down the speed of his speech. He did not check for understanding. She could not read his lips. Instead of looking at her directly, he was multi-tasking and pivoting his head and body while sitting on his rolling silver stool. My daughter would look at him, then back and me, then back at him. Most of her answers were correct and accurate. At one point, I asked her if she was able to understand the doctor. Embarrassed, she rolled her eyes and said, “Of course, Mom.”
After a brief set of questions and a hands-on assessment, the doctor described the procedure he wanted to perform. It wasn’t going to be pleasant. In fact, what he explained actually sounded pretty painful. I nodded in agreement and he left the room.
When the door closed, Bridget looked at me and pulled her mask down below her lips. “What is he going to do to me?” she asked. It was then I realized she had hardly understood anything at all. Her hearing aids could not amplify his muffled voice enough and her ‘back up method’ of reading lips was inaccessible.
Although I do not have hearing loss myself, for fifteen years I have been a front seat witness as the parent of a child who lost her hearing as a toddler. I have seen time and time again important information float past my child because she didn’t accurately hear it; although she thought she did. Hearing aids, cochlear implants, and other amplification technology is absolutely amazing in connecting people who are deaf and hard-of-hearing to the speech and sounds of daily life – but they are not perfect. Accommodations are still needed – even in everyday situations.
I know that clear face masks are now available. I have yet to see anyone actually wear one. And, I certainly can’t afford to keep a hoard of them in my purse to give every person my child will interact with over the course of a week. Not only would that be expensive and impractical, my child would refuse to go anywhere with me. And, could I blame her? So, while the argument of whether or not to mandate mask wearing rages on around us, we will continue to wear ours religiously. And, in addition, my child will continue to be at a disadvantage. She will miss out and misunderstand. As we move through the summer months of 2020, I’m having to come to terms with that reality for us – without having a reasonable solution to offer her, others like her, or the world around her.
**Valerie Abbott is a 1-3-6 Family Educator and Learning Community Coordinator for the Center for Family Involvement at VCU. In this dual role, Valerie works closely with parents of deaf and hard-of-hearing children and professionals to help reduce loss to follow up. A graduate of Hollins University, she lives in Henrico County with her husband and two daughters, one of whom is hard-of-hearing. **