Health Report- COVID-19 masks and challenges for the deaf

Health Reports

The World Health Organization says people with hearing loss benefit from early interventions and access to communication like closed captioning and sign language.

Now, a college instructor is working to overcome the additional challenges presented by COVID-19.

At the height of the pandemic, instructor Bill Cooper went virtual. Online teaching and learning is challenging for everyone, but Cooper has been deaf since birth. It was the result of a traumatic delivery.

“My face was blue as I was born. They thought I was dead.” Cooper said.

As a child, American Sign Language became his lifeline. Now, Cooper teaches it to college students.

“I’m an exceptional student education major. For me personally, that means I want to work with kids with disabilities.” said Abbie Brown, a sophomore at the University of Central Florida.

Cooper needs to see his students’ hands and faces. The masks that keep people safe from COVID-19 prevent lip reading and block facial expression.

“It’s a visual language, you know, when you’re signing with someone. Also, you’re able to sort of see their speech and everything.” Cooper said.

“When you remove facial expressions, it’s incredibly hard to understand the nuances or the context of what somebody is saying.” Brown said.

One solution is clear masks, like the mask that is worn by interpreter Crystal Mallozzi. Cooper says he’s also paying very close attention to the parts of the face that are visible.

“You know, I can see your facial expression. If your eyebrows go up or down, I can see if you’re happy or upset.” Cooper said.

For online classes, Cooper uses a large monitor and he asks his students to have an empty background, so he can focus on their fingers.

“The students think that ASL is, maybe, beautiful. That’s why a lot of folks are fascinated with it.” Cooper said.

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