'Masks are a nightmare' - how Covid rules have hit deaf people in Norfolk

Inset clockwise from top, Tania Marie Dawe, Laura Hawksworth and Ami Hook-Ireland.

Inset clockwise from top, Tania Marie Dawe, Laura Hawksworth and Ami Hook-Ireland have all share their experiences of the challenges faced by deaf people during the Covid pandemic. - Credit: Tania Marie Dawe/Laura Hawksworth/Ami Hook-Ireland/Archant

The pandemic has been tough for us all, and those who are deaf or hard of hearing have had to face even more challenges.

Covid has taken its toll – deafness charity SignHealth says one in three deaf people nationally have struggled with their mental health during the pandemic.

Three people in Norfolk have spoken about the difficulties they've faced.

Tania Marie Dawe, 25, from Norwich

Tania Marie Dawe, 25, from Norwich.

Tania Marie Dawe, 25, from Norwich, said everyone would benefit if those in charge focussed on producing masks with a clear window. - Credit: Tania Marie Dawe

I was off for maternity leave during the pandemic and found it hard that there were no other parents that I could meet and greet like how I imagined once you have a child. Even to this day, my daughter does not really know her grandparents very well and other family members and this is due to the pandemic. Obviously, we had to all keep apart for very good reasons and reasons that I will always respect, but that does not mean that it has not affected people.

The introduction of masks in shops and schools is where it all got hard. Because I am profoundly deaf, lipreading was then taken away.

The masks in shops and in schools have been a nightmare. I cannot lip read anyone – though in schools it has now been taken away, and it has been amazing to see the other half of people’s faces again. In shops and in terms of picking up my daughter from nursery, I cannot hear or lip read what others are saying to me and so I feel all left out, especially when all the other parents are talking amongst each other, but I cannot join in because I simply can’t ask them all to pull their mask down as then no-one would be safe.

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I feel that this is a conflict that all deaf people are probably in. Yes, it is our right to be able to ask for the mask to be pulled down as it is a government reasonable adjustment rule, but I know how uncomfortable that this makes people feel and again, it is about safety as well. When I go into shops, I tend to use the self-scanner to avoid talking to the shop keepers and if I have my husband with me, then he would pull his mask down and relay the questions to me.

I have relied on my husband to tell me what has been happening on the news. The subtitles are of no use as they are slow in following what is being said and I don’t really watch the signer as I am not really a BSL user like the way some of my deaf friends are. They really have been affected by the whole no interpreter situation. For me, I tend to read about it in the news or just wait for my husband to tell me what is happening then I am caught up.

I would like the local authority/government to focus on producing masks with a clear window part that is safe to use in public sectors. You don’t know who enters the shops or restaurants, anyone could be deaf or hard of hearing. To honest, everyone benefits from seeing people’s facial expressions and reactions, so really, it doesn’t just benefit those who are deaf – it benefits everyone else too.

Ami Hook-Ireland, 26, from Fakenham

Ami Hook-Ireland, from near Fakenham.

Ami Hook-Ireland, from near Fakenham, said inaccessible guidance and information leaves deaf people 'feeling like we have been forgotten'. - Credit: Ami Hook-Ireland

We actually found out I was pregnant a week before the pandemic began, so it was a very anxious time for us as I was also classed as clinically extremely vulnerable due to my disabilities. We didn't know how appointments would be carried out as my pregnancy progressed. However, we had to attend scans and midwife appointments to check the wellbeing of our baby.

The only aspect of my life that the pandemic had a substantial impact on was my physiotherapy sessions. Since December 2018, I had been having weekly physiotherapy sessions at a specialist neurological rehabilitation centre in Norwich, the pandemic prevented all sessions for the foreseeable future. It really was a devastating blow for me, as I had reached a huge milestone and I couldn't continue with physiotherapy to maintain it.

I tried physiotherapy at home, but it never felt the same. At the centre, I could focus on myself entirely, with no distractions.

Before masks became mandatory, trying to understand what people were saying was difficult enough, but when the new rules were announced, masks just placed communication and interaction in a league of it's own difficulty.

Almost every medical appointment we needed to attend was complicated. I felt frustrated watching my husband and the medical professionals discuss our baby, my wellbeing, next steps, etc. My husband did his best to relay what had been discussed, and some staff did remove their masks and try their best to communicate with me when talking about specific topics, like the risks of general anaesthetic, side effects of the epidural, and so on.

As much as it was frustrating, it is easier for my husband to summarise what has been said, as it is exhausting trying to understand a lot of information when another person is trying their best to communicate with me, especially when they don't look at me directly, speak slowly or very clearly.

I've had to rely on waiting for news articles to be written about the briefings, as I've not learnt BSL – I would like to learn it as it would make me feel less excluded from situations such as these.

I do think that local authorities need to ensure that people who are deaf or have hearing difficulties, have all the information they need to be equipped with to be able to continue living independently during the pandemic and thereafter. Guidance and information should always be accessible because if it's not, then we are left feeling isolated – feeling like we have been forgotten.

Laura Hawksworth, 25, from south Norfolk

Laura Hawksworth, who lives in south Norfolk.

Laura Hawksworth, who lives in south Norfolk, said trips to the GP were 'overwhelming' as the lack of see-through masks or visors made it difficult to communicate. - Credit: Laura Hawksworth

I was a brand new mother with a two-day-old baby when Covid-19 arrived at the N&N hospital. As soon as lockdown begun, it was overwhelming as everything I had imagined for my son – family and friends celebrating his birth, visiting us and holding him – wouldn’t happen and could not happen for a long time. We also didn’t get to socialise and mix with other parents and babies.

It was isolating and terrifying – I kept thinking that my son would catch it somehow and we’d be awful parents because we’re the only ones that has physical contact with him at this point. Even now, 14 months later, we struggle to socialise and I struggle with anxiety and the worry that my child will get it as he cannot be vaccinated until he is able to have it.

I had my health visitor coming around with a mask on and it was impossible to even communicate as we also had to be 2m away, so pen and paper or using the notes app on our phones wasn’t an option either.

We also had a few trips to our GP for vaccinations and other issues and again, I was just overwhelmed with the fact no-one really adjusted to my deafness by wearing see-through masks or visors. It’s a horrible feeling, struggling to communicate with the people that are supposed to help me keep my son healthy and happy – how can I do that if I had no idea what was being said?

For example, my son has an ongoing issue. At one point he was in pain so the GP asked to see him physically for a referral. I made it clear I was deaf and would need to communicate via pen and paper. When I entered the room and turned to them, I realised they had said something behind my back and was waiting for me to say something back.

So I gestured that I was deaf and brought my pen and paper. They shook their head and carried on talking. I just had to keep saying I’m deaf and couldn’t understand them until they finally wrote it down. That was a frustrating moment for me as it clearly shows that as a deaf mother, I’m dismissed as a danger or an obstacle to them because I rely on written communication.

My mother is also deaf and she struggles to understand what is going on during televised coronavirus press conferences. So as her only child, I have to explain to her in BSL – I’m fluent but I’m in no position to interpret for Boris Johnson when there are registered and trained professionals out there to do exactly that.

Even I can get it wrong sometimes – imagine if I told my own mum the wrong information and that endangered her? However, I cannot simply say no to helping my own mum understand what’s happening. So I’m conflicted. If Boris Johnson took it seriously, so many more deaf people would feel safer and children like myself would also feel comfortable that our parents are independent and not reliant on us to interpret for them.

I have brought up the idea of an accessible contact line with councils a few times, to be ignored. If you look on the Interpreter Now App, you can see that they provide free BSL-accessible services to speak to their local county councils about any issues.

We don’t have that with our local authorities at all. They keep insisting email addresses are enough but it is English. We cannot put BSL into a written language, it is visual. So they need to provide BSL access to their websites and to contact them too.

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