Skip to content

Hope

Photograph taken by Gail Solomon
Angie receives blood while using AVA on her phone to transcribe the phlebotomist’s comments. Photograph taken by Gail Solomon

I Don’t Speak Mask (or Mock); I Speak HOPE.

As hearing loss advocate, I couldn’t stay silent about pandemic-inspired masks. But I’m a procrastinator. I’m glad I waited to write about them until today, as I was vividly reminded of the underlying problem.

Masks on the Masses

Our world has never been so “masked-up.” Deaf and hard of hearing people knew masks would bring communication problems, as we’ve dealt with past surgeries and dental procedures that require masks. We automatically lipread, some of us without realizing it. We read expressions and gestures to help us understand what others say. We guess a lot and miss a lot. We have experience, just not on this scale.

As a safety professional, I’m fearful for the safety issues that might arise because of misread and feigned understandings of safety communications made verbally under masks, in high-noise environments; in heightened stresses and fears of the pandemic; in the societal unrest and upheaval we’re experiencing as a result of racism. That’s another article, or more. So are discussions about health, mask efficacy, when to wear or not to wear, individual rights, personal responsibility to yourself and loved ones, etc.

The issue I’m concerned with is how we treat each other while relating, or retreating, behind the masks.

Power in My Purse

I faced my own fears at my first masked-up blood donation. I arrived early at the cross-town synagogue where the blood drive was to be held. Seeing no activity, cars, or Bloodmobile, I checked my email again, realizing that because of the pandemic, the location had been changed from the synagogue to the Red Cross facility nearer to my home. So now I’d be late and encounter hearing struggles! I drove like a banshee to the correct location and wondered if my blood pressure would be too high to donate.

I met the first volunteer at the door, telling him I was hard of hearing and wouldn’t hear well inside. He told me he was a veteran with PTSD. Understanding the tempo of those letters as he spoke them, I thanked him for his service and for sharing that with me. His resonance and candor calmed me.

A room-full of volunteers was another story. At a reception table, synagogue members (I later learned) were thrilled that a non-synagogue member showed up. By this time, I was cranky due to my lateness, dazed by moving masks, and desperate to hear the person talking to me over a constant murmur I could but didn’t want, to hear. Synagogue members helped me figure out a check-in process on my cell phone. A Red Cross employee let me answer questions onscreen. I wasn’t as patient as I could’ve been; despite this fact, my blood pressure was fine. But it seemed to rise as I turned toward the donation chair.

You see, I routinely give blood from my left arm (my deaf side), where a bold vein screams “prick me!” to any phlebotomist in earshot. So, I envisioned the next struggle – a blood collecting process minus lips. Thankfully, a few minutes into pint-giving, I realized the power in my purse. Grabbing it with my free right arm, I pulled out my phone with the Ava speech-to-text app loaded on it. As I began speaking into the phone, my attending blood collector came over. I showed him my words now appearing onscreen and asked him to speak his directions into the phone. His words appeared too. We were both jazzed.

After my donation, I shared Ava with the reception table volunteers and apologized for my previous impatience. They were more than gracious and asked if I’d like to be invited to their next blood drive eight weeks later, which hopefully, will be at their synagogue. “I’d be delighted!” Ava and I replied.

The Power in Me

“There’s an app for that!” we always say. So yes, there’s an app or several (Connect-Hear.com); there’s also good old-fashioned paper and pen, or blackboard and chalk, or white board and marker. The most meaningful solution for me though, is to control my anxiety and realize my inner power – when I can – to take charge of situations and use the tools I have at hand and in me to make them always-positive ones.

At my next appointment, a bevy of health care workers hovered near the entrance to a medical building. Masks began to move as I crossed the threshold. This time, I was in a good mood, announcing as soon as I pulled in close, “Wait! I don’t speak mask!” They all burst out laughing, with one warning she needed to take my temperature as she brought a thermometer to my forehead. I guessed that she also asked if I knew where I was going; so quickly, I made a funny, yet not crude, gesture informing them I’d come in for a mammogram. Laughter is always a good solution. And it makes everyone’s burdens a little lighter.

A No-Mask Mock

I expected mocking from masked hearing people. Sadly, in the health field where I work and serve, I’ve experienced mocking from health care and public health professionals. But tittering, nervous laughs from people who don’t know what to do to help me were the most I’d gotten in the past few months – – until today.

Today, the mask-less neighbor of a friend drove up to us as we returned from a walk. I met this neighbor a few years ago and hadn’t seen him since. When he stopped, he waved his arms in mocking gestures at me. It seemed he only remembered my partial deafness, instead of anything else important about me. I wasn’t shocked, since I knew of this neighbor’s coarseness. A bit rattled with PTSD rising in me, I locked eyes with his, a “Why?” in mine, and walked silently past. Later, in his kitchen, my friend reported to me that after I walked by he asked his neighbor how he thought any person who couldn’t hear would feel if they were treated that way. He told me his neighbor just stared back at him blankly, wordlessly.

Real Problem; Right Language

It seems the real problem is fear in all of us in this brave new multi-masked world: fear of what to do and what to say, as well as our own insecurities hurled at each other in hurtful ways. Masks, and fears, are easy to hide behind. Even mockers are insecure, else they wouldn’t resort to such boorish behaviors.

So, to me, the right language to speak (or sign, for those who don’t speak) is always: HOPE

Help me help you! is Tom Cruise’s plea in Jerry McGuire. Help each other the way they ask you to do so.

Other = Focus on the Other, whether you are the Deaf or hard of hearing person, or the hearing person.

Prepare: Be prepared with your words. Be prepared with your solutions; be willing to use the other’s.

Empathy: Let everything be done with empathy, especially your responses. Even for boorish neighbors.

Issues such as racism are complex and deep-rooted. Yet, in simple terms, they’re based on sight, judging others by skin color or a blood line. If all of us were blind, would these issues exist? What if we were all Deaf? What if all of us used a visual language instead of a spoken one? Throughout history, people have found ways to discriminate against each other based on perceived differences. As with racism, we can easily treat others with disrespect and judgment based on hearing or lack thereof. Masked or not, in a pandemic or not, seeing, hearing, or neither: choose to help; focus on the other’s communication needs; be prepared for interactions; and be empathetic. Speak HOPE! Be another’s help and each other’s hope.

About me: Angie (Fugo) Fuoco is the local chair for the Say What Club 2020, now 2021 convention. She has worked in federal government for more than 33 years in a variety of roles. In March, she joined the EPA’s San Francisco Office of Community Involvement and has since been busy making sure the agency’s engagement activities include people with disabilities, and those of us with hearing loss. She’s excited to host our 2021 Convention next year in Pittsburgh, hopefully without masks!