Outing or Withdrawal
by Danja Rachel Leimgruber*
The mask requirement affects communication as well asrelationships not only in old people’s homes and daycare centres. Around half a million deaf and hearing-impaired people live in Switzerland. They depend on facial expressions and mouth images to understand information. Hygiene masks make communication massively more difficult for these people. Danja Rachel Leimgruber, a HKB student, describes her personal everyday life and the dilemma: should I come out or withdraw?
Since birth, I, Danja Rachel Leimgruber, have been profoundly deaf in both ears. In the first year of my life, when my hearing loss was not yet known, I grew up in silence. As a child I wore two hearing aids and at the age of 6 I received a cochlear implant in my left ear. Despite these hearing aids, my hearing impressions are not comparable to those of hearing people. I cannot listen to radio programmes and I need to watch films with subtitles. I also have no directional hearing and it is difficult for me to filter out what is being said in reverberant and noisy environments. Thanks to a lot of practice with my mother and the audiologist, I can now understand and speak well. I am currently studying visual communication at the Bern University of the Arts HKB.
As a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, masks are currently compulsory in public places. This makes it very difficult for me to understand other people. I have to lip-read to communicate, and wearing masks means that I can hardly understand others, if at all.
During my studies, I brought this to the attention of the lecturers and they were given special permission to take the masks off when they communicate with me or have enough distance from me and my fellow students. Still, the whole situation is not easy for me. Again and again, people forget that their lips are covered while they are speaking. Especially when the students ask questions or give answers, they have their masks on. Since not all of them speak clearly and/or loudly enough, I often don’t understand anything of the communication. So, it is even more difficult for me to keep up with the subject. In certain situations, I speak up and point out that I don’t understand anything without lip-reading. But as time goes by, it is tedious for me to keep mentioning this. Hearing impairment generally makes communication difficult and can exclude people from relationships in society. In general, it is difficult for hearing people to empathise with a person with hearing impairment and to imagine living in silence or always hearing with effort. The mask requirement further isolates hearing impaired people, marginalises them in society and makes equal opportunities, for example, in education, even more remote.
The most difficult thing for me is communicating in public places. People don’t know that I don’t hear well or that I have to rely on lip-reading. For example, when shopping: If the shop assistant asks me something, he/she often has to repeat it. Communicating with strangers is difficult for me and often leads to misunderstandings. Most of them also get impatient and a bit angry, which is unpleasant for me. If possible, I explain my situation to them. Some are understanding and repeat it calmly, others are overwhelmed and try to get rid of me as quickly as possible.
In this current situation, I always think twice about talking to strangers. If it’s not urgent, I don’t go to them. So, I prefer to wait until wearing masks is no longer compulsory.
Of course, it is important to me that the Corona crisis is taken seriously and that certain protective measures are implemented. Nevertheless, it would be nice if people are aware that these measures mean an additional hurdle for us hearing-impaired people and that it is important that we are taken into consideration.
When I first heard that transparent masks were available which enable the deaf and hard of hearing to read lips, I was sceptical. I imagined the transparent material to be like the lenses of glasses, which would tarnish as soon as you go from cold to warm. So, I could hardly read the lips. But when I did some more research, I found out that there are masks specifically for this purpose that don’t tarnish and also protect against the virus. I think that’s a great idea. If the people around me wore such masks, I would no longer be excluded from conversations and could participate more socially. It would also make the situation less cumbersome for my communication partners.
Furthermore, there are also plexiglass visors that some people wear, but I find these less good. Not because they are transparent and I can see the whole face, but because this kind of “protection” does not protect against the virus.
*) My name is Danja Rachel Leimgruber and I am 24 years old. I attended public school up to and including the 6th grade. After that I went to the Landenhof boarding school for the deaf and hard of hearing in Unterentfelden, Aarau, until the 9th grade. I then attended the NMS grammar school in Bern and completed the Matura there. At grammar school I decided to go in the direction of design. At first, I had interior design in mind, which is why I did a six-month internship in an architectural office in Zurich. However, I quickly realised that this direction is not for me. So, I did the preliminary course in INVERS Bern and found my direction to study visual communication. Now I’m in my third, soon to be fourth semester at the Bern University of the Arts HKB.