COVID-19: Hard of hearing community grappling to navigate widespread mask-wearing - deaf epidemiologist

The deaf and hard of hearing community is grappling with the amplified use of masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19, with one epidemiologist calling for more guidance and support.

Amanda Kvalsvig, an epidemiologist at the University of Otago's public health department in Wellington, is also a member of the deaf community and relies on lip-reading to understand people.

"As an epidemiologist, I'm very relieved that mask-wearing is becoming an integral part of our pandemic response," Dr Kvalsvig said. "But as a deaf person, it saddens me that the New Zealand public is being forced to negotiate this change without a national-level programme of communication guidance and support."

She said being in a situation where people are giving her important information and not being able to understand is "extremely anxiety-producing".

"It is an absolute no-brainer that if the Government is requiring people to wear masks [but] communication support must be right there wherever people need it. There should be relevant communication training and resources available for all staff in public-facing roles.

"Resources could include clear masks for key roles, visual information that uses text or images, and access to NZSL (New Zealand sign language) interpreters. In particular, these measures will apply to staff managing travel at the border and at all healthcare settings that are operating at alert level 4."

Close up of hands in to gossip gesture, in the background blurred image of three people
Photo credit: Getty Images

Dr Kvalsvig isn't alone and National Foundation for Deaf and Hard of Hearing chief executive Natasha Gallardo said the Government still needed to do better.

"It's still a huge communication barrier for deaf and hard of hearing [people] when going into supermarkets or medical centres, pharmacies etc," Gallardo told student radio station 95b on Tuesday.

She said alternatives needed include captioning on digital platforms for more news bulletins - something she expected would be put in place after the last lockdown.

"Last year, we said to the Government, 'there could be [a] consideration for clear masks' or, at the very, least, helping organisations or businesses to have material… that was displayed that would enable someone who was deaf or hard of hearing that they are deaf and they need a better way to communicate," Gallardo told 95b. 

"We gave the Government a lot of suggestions last year about what they could do to improve their pandemic response to consider the deaf and hard of hearing community, and all we received was a comment around, 'yes, they could do better and they would look to do better in the future,' but clearly nothing has changed."

Masks are mandatory while accessing essential services during alert level 4, but the Government's Unite against COVID-19 website says people don't need to wear a face-covering if they need to communicate with someone who is deaf or hard of hearing. 

The deaf community says it wants to raise awareness so New Zealanders know this is the case.

"I welcome the announcement that New Zealanders are being asked to wear masks when they leave home. This is a key outbreak control measure because it significantly reduces the amount of virus people are breathing into the air around them," Dr Kvalsvig said.

"A final reminder is that communication will be challenging when everyone is masked up. We'll need to be patient and creative in our interactions with strangers. 

"It might be helpful to point to things, write key messages down, or show somebody an image or text on your phone."