Communication Breakdown

Tucson’s deaf and hard-of-hearing community speaks out about the increased difficulty they face communicating with the public due to COVID-19 masks and other precautions taken during the pandemic.

Something as simple as grabbing a cup of coffee from your local Starbucks can result in frustration and misunderstanding for everyone involved these days, said Treasurer for the Adult Loss of Hearing Association Stanley Kruggel. Seven years ago, Kruggel received cochlear implants to help him recover his hearing after a time of decline, he said.

"Last week, I was at a Starbucks and their front door was closed but they had a table outside with a bell to ring for service," Kruggel said. "I thought they were taking orders there."

Before the pandemic hit, Kruggel said he could typically understand conversations due to his cochlear implants and speech-reading. Now, the situation is much more challenging since a sizable population is communicating with half their face covered, Kruggel said.

"I told (the employee) I would like to order a drink and she started going on and on. The only word I could understand was drive-thru," Kruggel said. "Then I realized the table I was at was for pick-up only. I usually do pretty well, but with the mask being muffled and not seeing lips, that's a huge factor for us to communicate."

Kruggel said he then had a similar problem going through the Starbucks drive-thru—employees kept asking questions about his order while wearing masks. Kruggel flashed the button pin he often sports that states "Please Face Me, I Lip Read" at the employees. They obligingly remove their masks and finish the transaction.

"The first lady and two others came to the drive-thru window to ask me questions about it," Kruggel said. "She asked if it was hard trying to lip-read when they had a mask on. I said, 'Yeah, it's near impossible.'"

COVID masks are not the only problem for Arizona's deaf and hard-of-hearing community these days. ALOHA President Karl Hallsten said the pandemic has "only made a bad situation worse." He too received cochlear implants but said they only have an effective range of a few feet. Today's six-foot social distancing guidelines are putting many from Hallsten's community out of range for everyday conversation, he said.

"The best cochlear implants have an effective range of three to six feet. Why is that? Because it's like a P.A. system. How far you are from the microphone matters," Hallsten said. "Social distancing puts us out of range."

Another issue Hallsten points out is the difficulty of wearing a COVID mask with cochlear implants. The implant is stationed behind the ear and typically uses a hearing aid device as a microphone that sits in and around the ear. There isn't much room for anything else, Hallsten said.

"The masks are more difficult for us to wear because I might have run out of real estate behind my ear," Hallsten said. "I have big cochlear processors and I have my glasses. Now I'm going to put something else back there and try not to get it tangled up?"

While the masks may be cumbersome for those with cochlear implants, they are still vital to protect his community, Hallsten said. ALOHA put in an order for special masks that use clear plastic to expose the mouth area which helps aid speech-reading. The only problem is the COVID masks—like most PPE—are on backorder and the group doesn't know when they'll arrive.

"ALOHA ordered some and the first thing we heard was they would be in sometime in June. I just saw the other day on their website they were way behind on the June order," Hallsten said. "I'm hoping we might actually get them before the pandemic is over."

Kruggel said when the group does receive its PPE, he hopes the community will take notice of these special clear COVID masks to become more aware of their situation during the pandemic and after. More than 1.1 million Arizonans are deaf or hard-of-hearing, according to the Arizona Commission for the Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing.

"If we could start seeing more (clear masks) during the pandemic, then hopefully they will realize the importance of our situation in the future," Kruggel said.

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