Masks Make Outcasts Of Hearing Impaired

Dear Editor,

Just over 20 years ago, I lost most of my hearing to two massive brain tumors on my auditory nerves.  I can still hear some sounds, but I primarily depend on lip-reading to communicate with others.  That is not possible when the majority of the population is wearing masks. 

Why do I bring this up?  I’m not here to argue over the efficacy of masks versus a respiratory virus.  I just want people to understand that masks are not a zero-harm intervention, because they have created a society in which I cannot participate, and they have turned what was a moderate inconvenience into a true disability.

Everyone who knows me knows that I am a talker.  I live for witty repartee and thoughtful conversation.  But over the past 500 days, my most common phrase has become: “I’m sorry, I’m hearing-impaired.  I need to read your lips.  Could you please lower your mask?”  I never imagined that, in 21st century America, I would be apologizing to others for my deafness. 

In the city, only about half of those I interact with will lower their masks to speak to me.  The rest enter into a ridiculous game of charades – trying their best to gesture to me what they are trying to say.  Occasionally, they succeed; but often, the result is that I end up with an incorrect order, I get scolded for not following instructions, someone rolls their eyes at my lack of comprehension … and we finally give up and go our separate ways.  This is no minor inconvenience: it happens multiple times per day.

Many people I have discussed this with have offered various solutions, comments, or explanations as to why my situation is “not so bad.”  I will list a few of them below, along with my own comments.

1) “You should learn sign language!”

That’s nice, and I have learned a bit and intend to learn more.  But unfortunately, even if I was fluent, sign language would only help me communicate with 1/200th of the population.  Not entirely practical.

2) “People can wear those masks with clear windows on them!”

That sounds nice, but people do not wear them.  Plus, they tend to fog up when the wearer is speaking, and there is often glare on them that makes lip-reading extremely difficult; and they also block a great deal of sound, just like normal masks.  They are inadequate.

3) “But I said something to you the other day with a mask on, and you heard me!”

Like many hearing-impaired people, I am not profoundly deaf.  Sometimes, I can (slightly) understand someone with a mask on when that person says something in context, that I was expecting to hear (i.e. “yes,” “no,” etc.).  Body language can help, too, like shaking your head or nodding; and some voices I can hear better than others.

4) “You can just socialize online!” 

Yes, because there is so much love and so little vitriol on the internet that I can easily use Facebook as a substitute for human interaction.

5) “It’s just temporary!”

You told me that last April.  It has been over 500 days.

6) “It’s unfortunate that hearing-impaired people need to go through this, but maybe they should just take one for the team.”

If you believe that, then we are not on the same team.

Please understand that not every anti-masker wants your grandma to get sick.  Not all of them are ignorant, uneducated hicks.  Some of them have good reason to hate masks, or just want a chance to function in society like everyone else.  Please pause to consider this before passing judgment on an unmasked friend or stranger.

It is my hope that Skip Alston decides to lift his mask mandate today or in the near future.  In the meantime, if you see me out at a bar or restaurant that is not requiring social-distancing or masks, it is not because I think the virus is fake, or because I want anyone else to die — it’s because you’ve asked too much of me.  I will try my best to be polite to the maskers, and I hope they will try their best to be polite to me.

Jeremiah Smith



A Difficult Discussion of Why

 Dear Editor

Witnesses recorded a rape in broad daylight on a train.  None intervened or phoned police.  This invites comparisons to similar witness indifference in the infamous Kitty Genovese case.  Researchers investigated why nothing was done then.  We need to research this case to prevent recurrence.

Witnesses were criticized for recording the crime instead of calling police.  We used to phone police, lawyers, news agencies, nonprofit groups, government agencies and political offices to report injustices.  Today, we post video evidence expecting appropriate responses.  Postings have resulted in accused being fired, arrested, publicly shamed etc.  Has posting video evidence become the vivid de facto norm for reporting injustices/crimes?

Another complicating aspect involves environmental conditions.  Misperception of policing is high.  Politicians enthusiastically promote police defunding.  Defunders promote negative perceptions of police.  Crime statistics, cumulative crime numbers, have been suppressed to prevent “stereotyping.”  There is social pressure to not report crimes, to not involve police.  Those who report crime are equally disdained as police accomplices.  Several city mass transit systems have released public awareness messages promoting witness intervention in order to protect passengers from policing.  These untrained witnesses have less experience that would worsen outcomes.  In many situations, it is frankly unsafe for passengers to intervene/deescalate.  The unintended consequence of these messages, reading between the lines, is that reporting crimes is undesirable.  If the transit authority wants to protect us from “hateful” policing, they would logically want to protect us from “hateful” witness reporting and “hateful” interventions as well.  If a trained officer can be attacked on the internet for doing their job, an untrained witness can expect similar treatment.  Reporting potential crimes, for professionals to handle, “incorrectly” has resulted in online shaming, doxing, and career loss.

In a short period of time, these witnesses had to evaluate risks of potential actions.  Some of the witnesses likely believed the antipolice rhetoric.  They may have feared repercussions for intervening/reporting.  At the same time they may have believed the internet was an acceptable reporting method.

This was a crime of intimate personal violation.  Witnesses should have directly reported the crime, intervened if not dangerous, and not considered posting video.  Posting the video only re-victimizes the victim every time it replays for everyone to see.  However, we need to understand why it happened to prevent recurrence.  We need to stop attacking victims/witnesses for reporting potential crimes.

Alan Burke