I taught myself as a child how to lip read. I needed something to help me know what was going on around me other than relying on my hearing aids. I went to a deaf school as a kindergartner for all of three months and hated it, so my parents switched me over to the local public school system. I was the first deaf student to be mainstreamed in that school district back in the 80s. Being in a classroom full of chattering, active kids, I learned quickly how to adapt and that was by lip reading. By lip reading, I felt that I wasn’t out of the loop, by too much.
Lip reading, in conjunction with the little hearing I have amplified by hearing aids, and the ability to read facial expressions and body language, all combined with helping me decode what others said to me. It is like an ever-evolving puzzle, if you will. Chances are that conversation topics will vary from the workplace to family to social situations like crowded bars. Over the years, I learned to anticipate conversational topics depending on the person I would see, the location I would be in, and utilizing that knowledge with my limited hearing and lip reading. It helped make me feel more in control.
I have often joked over the years that since I rely on lipreading so much, I have no real concept of how little hearing I actually have. So much of what I ‘hear’ and understand is actually a product of reading lips and facial expressions. My lip reading skills have come in handy during loud, rowdy events over the years. I would often be the one individual who would understand what people would say to one another during a loud dinner, a unique experience for someone who was more often than not left out socially. Many a friend would ask me to lip read what other people were saying across the room which would lead to hilarious, if inaccurate, accountings. I was even asked to lipread what the jury and prosecution said during a trial when I was a legal intern after college. I didn’t hold onto that internship position for long as I didn’t feel it was right to use my lip reading skills in that situation.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, I quickly realized that I do, indeed, have much, much less hearing than I had originally thought. As I had suspected over the years, my lip reading skills helped to mask (no pun intended) any shortcomings my incredibly limited hearing had. My husband and a number of our extended family are physicians and many of them are on the frontlines caring for COVID-19 patients. So wearing a mask to slow the spread to give doctors and nurses a fighting chance to provide meaningful care to COVID-19 patients is a no brainer.
My husband often says that wearing a mask is the ultimate act of altruism. Wearing a mask does more to protect others than it does to protect ourselves. It is such a simple and easy thing to do for others, especially our health care workers. By everyone wearing masks in public, I may not be able to lip read. Simple conversations may go over my head. I have even been in situations where my oldest son, at age 10, finds himself helping interpret what is being said as he is (luckily) a lot more patient with his mom than many others can be. Despite the inconveniences of not being able to lip read during COVID-19, I proudly wear my mask and fully expect others to wear theirs. It’s unfortunate to see so many others refuse to wear a mask, during a pandemic, for childish and selfish reasons.
If a deaf woman like me can forgo lipreading, one of my main communication methods, and still 110 percent support mask-wearing, what petty excuse do others have? This is time for altruism, for thinking of others. The best way to show your care for others, especially front line medical staff, is by wearing a mask when out in public.
Lauren Follmar is a patient advocate.
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