Sterling Heights

As the need for masks rises, so do challenges for deaf and hard of hearing communities

Prior to the Delta variant, as recommendations for face coverings eased among vaccinated populations, it’s likely no one felt more relief than those with hearing loss.

That relief is waning. 

Amid a rise in COVID-19 cases this month, many schools and businesses are now again requiring face masks, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends even vaccinated people wear them in public, indoor settings in areas with high transmission rates (currently all of Southeast Michigan).

But while face coverings serve to slow the spread of COVID-19, they add an additional barrier in communicating for those who are deaf and hard of hearing. 

“It’s not just people who read lips,” says Phyllis Harbaugh, who leads a Deaf Ministry at Memorial Baptist Church in Sterling Heights, and has done so for nearly 40 years. “American Sign Language (ASL) uses lots of facial expression and body language. When you cover your face, you take away most, if not all, of what a person who can’t hear needs to communicate.”

This has made the last 18 months extremely difficult for those with hearing loss to perform simple day-to-day activities out in the community, she says, and to safely gather with others. Being physically isolated has also added to the challenges many already face keeping current in the barrage of health and safety information required to navigate the pandemic.

Finding ways to communicate

Early in COVID-19, Harbaugh realized it was critical to reach out in multiple ways to support those at her church who are hard of hearing, deaf, or deaf-blind. This currently includes about 15 to 20 individuals who have returned to in-person fellowship. But for the past 18 months, Memorial has also streamed its Sunday offerings and monthly Deaf Worship evenings to a widespread virtual audience. 

With her local group, Harbaugh regularly hosted Zoom calls, used Video Relay Services (VRS) that link in a third-person ASL interpreter, and sent lots of mailings with recommendations from the CDC and health department.

“The governor was good to have an interpreter available,” she says, “but they signed so quickly and the captions went so fast that if you missed something, you can’t say, ‘Wait’.”

Her small group now meets together in person and socially distanced, going over health updates, masks, vaccines, and the like. They also just check in to learn how people are feeling, what their current needs are, and to encourage one another through a strong sense of community.

Since most of the group is vaccinated, Harbaugh isn’t currently requiring masks. They have been such a barrier to communication, she says, that when the group met last year, she socially distanced herself and removed her mask in order to share important information with everyone. Sometimes, others had to quickly pull theirs down to convey a point.

It’s been difficult, but Harbaugh is used to helping those in her Deaf Ministry navigate challenges. For nearly four decades, she’s interpreted worship services and led bible study classes at her church, while also caring for individual needs during the week, providing transportation, aid with finances, appointment scheduling, and recently, support in getting a vaccine.

Outside of her church, Harbaugh teaches ASL to Iraqi refugees at the Chaldean Community Foundation in Sterling Heights and serves as a translator for the foundation’s Deaf Bible Study.

CCF’s Deaf Fellowship group gathers in the foundation’s newly renovated building. (Photo: Sarah Williams)
Together again

On Thursday, Sept. 9, members of the CCF’s Deaf community met together, as a religious fellowship, for the first time since March 2020. Inside the newly expanded building on 15 Mile Road, flurried conversations leaped from hand to hand, amid smiles and laughter. The excitement was palpable. 

While one of the guests wore a face shield, others said they felt comfortable without masks in a small vaccinated group. Harbaugh signed to all as CCF behavioral health manager Susan Kattula offered a welcome and a tour of the center’s new community rooms and large, decorative art pieces, celebrating Chaldean heritage.

“It feels amazing to be back together again,” says a fellowship participant named Raghda. The small refugee group preferred to go by first names only. “For me, it’s been hard because I read lips a lot, and when people wear masks, I can’t do that. I ask them to write things down when I can’t understand. We go back and forth, and it takes a long time.”

Raghda’s group was meeting twice monthly before the pandemic and is one of two offerings in CCF’s H.E.A.L. Project: Hard of Hearing, English as a Second Language (ESL), ASL, and Life Skills. Kattula created the project in 2015 when she saw that many Deaf and hard of hearing adult refugees coming to the center were not fluent in any language, and were unable to take either ESL or ASL classes.

Phyllis Harbaugh, left, and Susan Kattula. (Photo: Sarah Williams)The unique H.E.A.L. program teaches ESL alongside an ASL interpreter — in this case, it’s Harbaugh. Serving over 55 Iraqi refugees and immigrants, the program aims to help better equip those with hearing impairments to live independent lives.

“We were going really strong with our ASL bible study just before COVID-19 and were often mingling and having fellowship with Memorial Baptist church,” Kattula says. But when the pandemic hit, communication with H.E.A.L. participants proved more difficult than with any of the foundation’s other groups.

“We were able to keep in touch with our blind students through FaceTime and Zoom calls, and to continue our verbal ESL classes once a week through the internet,” Kattula says. “But with someone who is deaf and new to English, Zoom doesn’t work. There are too many conversations happening at one time and you’re not sure who is speaking.”

Harbaugh helped Kattula record important COVID-19 information for H.E.A.L. participants, but classes paused until it was safe to meet in person. When they initially tried to come back, the masks were in the way. 

“The lessons we teach here involve facial expressions and body language, which are very important,” and especially when you’re dealing with refugees learning how to communicate with one another, Kattula says.

One thing that helped was using masks made with clear plastic windows for lip reading, created by a former CCF community member, Klodia Gossiaux. 

Along with regular PPE drives that CCF held for its community during the pandemic, they also distributed the clear masks to H.E.A.L. participants and their families. Staff wore them while providing essential curbside services. It wasn’t a perfect solution, as the original version sometimes fogged up, and part of the face was still obstructed, but, Kattula says, they were a huge help — and especially for necessary communication.

“When Klodia came up with this idea, it was so beautiful,” she says. “I even purchased them for our family so we could display facial expressions to my daughter’s new baby, who was born during the pandemic.”

CCF behavioral health manager Susan Kattula purchases clear masks from seamstress Klodia Gossiaux. (Photo courtesy of CCF)Necessity, the mother of invention

Helping people function better in a very difficult time has been the best part of this new business, says Gossiaux, a veteran seamstress of 20 years who lives in Dundee, Mich.

“I have profound hearing loss, which makes it difficult to understand people sometimes,” Gossiaux writes to Metromode. “My husband and I rely on lip-reading and of course facial expression and we both sign, and find all these work together.”

When the pandemic hit, masks made it difficult for the couple to communicate with others, she says, and mainly when it came to work tasks and doctor appointments. When a Deaf friend shared with her how they were also needing to take their mask on and off and write things down to talk with their boss, the light bulb went off in Gossaiux’s mind. 

She got to work creating a prototype that would allow for lip-reading, and easier than the small window that exists in some surgical masks. It took trying several kinds of plastic, she says, before she "found one that worked perfectly.” Throughout the pandemic, Gossaiux's donated her masks to teachers, students, doctors, and priests, she says, and has used a portion of her sales to support Gleaners Food Bank. 
Today, through her small business, Klodia’s Face Masks and More, she’s creating and selling masks to individuals across the country.

Clear mask made by Klodia's Face Masks and More. (Photo courtesy of Klodia Gossiaux)
An uncertain future

As for the six attendees to CCF’s bible study class, they’re navigating the added communication challenges that've come now that masks are mandated in public spaces again. With several in the group also parents, they discuss obstacles to communicating with their own children again outside the home.

“It’s very difficult going out with masks because my son has a hard time with speech too,” says Raghda. “We tried using clear ones but they kept fogging up and I couldn’t read lips at all. This was a big reason I got vaccinated.” She also had a mild case of COVID-19 last April, she says, and had to be quarantined from her son and parents, who she lives with. 

Several people in the group have had family members get sick with COVID-19, and one man, Wisam, shares how he lost his elderly mother to the virus early in the pandemic.

“My mom was in the hospital for a month, and then she died,” he says. “We couldn’t visit her there. We did a lot through Video Relay to talk with the doctor and the priest. My sister and her husband had it also.” He and others in the room are concerned about the rising Delta variant, especially with their kids in school.

Both Wisam and his wife Zena are fluent in ASL and say  masks aren’t really changing their ability to understand others. Wisam says he can’t hear at the store anyway, but sometimes there, or at the doctor, he does have to pull his own mask down for people to understand him.

Ferris, another participant who reads lips, says when he’s out in public and people are masked, he’s missing most of what is said to him, unless they stop to write it down.

“People need to be patient in communicating and just understand that the mask has created real problems across the board,” says Harbaugh, “problems for hearing people, for people of other languages, and definitely for people in the deaf community.”
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