Former Miss San Antonio winner Emma Faye Rudkin, 24, is a model, musician, and disabilities advocate. She’s also deaf. While the coronavirus continues to spread in Texas, where she lives, Emma Faye reveals how everyday interactions during our new masked reality make life for the deaf community anything but clear.
I’ve been deaf since I was 3 years old. Due to my hearing loss, I’ve become very used to having to teach people how to communicate with me. But with face masks, communication is not always clear. Something that folks might not realize is that most connections are nonverbal. You show so much of what you’re saying on your face.
Tone, inflection, and the pitch of your voice all show via your facial expressions when you speak, especially on your lips and cheeks. Since I can’t hear a majority of what is being said, not seeing people’s faces and lips means I’m missing a lot of what’s happening. Let me explain to you what that looks like during the pandemic.
I went to my gym recently and invited a friend to come with me. I missed spending time together and thought I was free to have a guest as long as we both wore masks. This should have been a relaxing day with a friend. But it was a nightmare.
At the gym, I was greeted by an employee wearing a mask who told me that I could no longer bring a guest inside. Unfortunately, due to the mask, I was unable to understand what she was saying at all. Instead of trying to accommodate me, the person got angry. I tried asking if they could distance themselves and consider lowering the mask so that I could see their lips to understand them while we were far apart, but she was afraid to take the mask down.
I tried to tell her that I understood she was uncomfortable but I wanted to see all the information somewhere. Could she show me on the website where to find it? I was told that my friend could tell me later. Including me in these conversations seems secondary now more than ever.
While I was ultimately able to resolve this situation after talking to management, I had to do the work to ensure I got answers. How do I get people to understand that I am doing everything I can when face masks—as they are now—hinder my ability to communicate?
So many of the updates from the government in Texas, where I live, are not interpreted or captioned during press conferences. Local mayors like mine here in San Antonio go live on digital platforms like Facebook and Instagram. But those are also not accessible to the deaf community. Even when there might be an interpreter for part of it, if the governor goes live and the screen pans to a PowerPoint while they continue to speak, I lose all that critical information about statistics and care.
The mandates constantly change and that’s causing people to be more afraid than ever. Here in Texas, businesses opened but then they closed. Since the state shut down for the second time, people can get fined for not wearing masks. I know this is a good thing to keep us safe, but this has caused a pushback on any type of accommodations for the hearing-impaired.
All I want is to be able to see information and be able to have independent conversations. I have worked very hard for that right and the pandemic is taking that away for me.
As a deaf person, I don’t have the privilege or the ability to just call businesses to ask every time I think there might be a new rule. Why can’t these regulations be updated on company websites when things change? Why are so many of my interactions met with humiliation for just trying to get clear communication?
The ADA states that my ability to communicate effectively is supposed to be protected due to my disability. I understand the purpose of masks. I understand safety. And I know there are people who are abusing disability “privilege” to justify not wearing masks. (Just to be super, super clear: Please wear a mask. I am not at all advocating for people not to wear masks.)
What I am advocating for is that people wear clear masks. With clear masks, we could be able to read lips and see facial expressions. That’s why I’m trying to spread the word about see-through masks. I even started a campaign to help people learn where they can buy clear masks and why they’re so useful to people with hearing loss.
People are forgetting that about the deaf community when we go to do our regular business. As someone who has struggled with anxiety and depression, being left out of the world is painful—especially during a crisis like the pandemic. I wish that folks were more willing to help accommodate us with clear masks. I wish local communities across the country would be more open to seeing how this pandemic is hitting the deaf community particularly hard right now.
Right now, like all of you, I’m stressed out about the pandemic. But I’m also stressed that I can’t safely communicate with anyone in my community. So please, consider not just the health of those around you but also the importance of how communication affects those of us who are denied our ability to be independent. I’ve worked very hard for this chance. Please stop spoiling that with ignorance and apathy.
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