October 27, 2020

I’m a Lip Reader in a Masked World

When my mammogram was done, the technician looked at me and smiled. “Nice boots,” she said.

Which was a nice thing to say. Except that because I am hearing-impaired, I didn’t think she said “boots.” Instead, I was certain she said a different word, something that seemed a little more specific to the procedure she had just completed.

I blushed. This examination had just become much more intimate than I expected. “Thank you,” I said, uncertainly.

“Where did you get them?” she asked.

The conversation appeared to be getting stranger. For a long moment I considered the possible answers to this question. Then the penny dropped, and my mouth dropped open. “Oh my god,” I said. “You said, ‘boots.’ I thought you said something else.”

She looked confused. “What word did you think I ….” Then her mouth dropped open too. And we both screamed.

This story makes me laugh, but the more I think about it, the sadder it gets. Because it’s really a story about how when you’re hearing-impaired, you can find yourself suddenly dropped into an alternate reality. Once, I was a brash and confident person, a fountain of energy, a woman who, by any measure, was absolutely full of beans. Since I lost much of my hearing several years ago, though, I’ve become a lot shyer, a little more melancholy, always a little bit afraid that I’m missing out or misunderstanding whatever it is that’s going on.

Now, in the age of Covid-19, with so many people wearing masks, life has gotten even harder.

I have space-age hearing aids and other assistive devices that enable me to negotiate the world, and I am grateful for them. But I also rely on other visual clues to get by — reading lips and getting cues from people’s facial expressions. These, alas, are the very things that masks obscure.

Let me be clear: Even with the difficulties they present, I’d much rather live in a world where people are wearing masks than one in which people go without them. On the internet, you can learn how to make a deaf-friendly face mask with a clear plastic insert over the mouth — although, as the novelist Sara Novic wrote in The Washington Post last week, they aren’t a perfect solution, and not only because they can fog up.

The real problem is that it’s hearing people who need to wear them if the goal is to make the lives of people like me easier. And if our collective experience of mask-wearing has taught us anything so far, it’s that asking people to make a sacrifice to help others has not exactly emerged as Americans’ strong suit.

Masks do two things — they can prevent us from getting sick, and they can prevent those of us who are sick (and may not even know it) from infecting others. Of the two goals, it’s the second one that masks are especially good at. When you wear a mask, it’s not only, or even mostly, to protect yourself. The bigger benefit is to others.

And that’s the challenge. Among a certain demographic, keeping other people alive is less important than one’s own sense of personal freedom — if freedom is defined by your right to not care about anyone other than yourself.

When you refuse to wear a mask, you’re sending me a message as clear as anything in sign language. You’re telling me that you care more about being comfortable than you do about keeping other people alive — let alone going the extra mile to ensure that they’re alive and can understand you.

Back in April, the president called masks “voluntary” and added, “I don’t think I’m going to be doing it.” Although he finally wore a mask in public during a visit to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center this month, his attitude — prepare yourself for a shock — continued to be lackadaisical. “I’ve never been against masks,” he said, “but I do believe they have a time and a place.”

So you’ll forgive me if I don’t take his (very) recent conversion to the ranks of the mask-promoting seriously, and feel skeptical that it will last.

What was at the heart of the president’s reluctance to embrace mask-wearing? Partly it’s that masks provide a visible reminder of his failure to effectively respond to the crisis. The reluctance serves as a continuation of his governing philosophy, the Peek-a-boo Baby Doctrine, in which things that Donald Trump cannot see do not exist. This is a man who calls for less testing for the coronavirus — because if you don’t test, the numbers go down.

This is a president who makes judgments about the world based on superficial appearances. Back in April he said: “I don’t know, somehow, sitting in the Oval Office behind that beautiful Resolute Desk — the great Resolute Desk — I think wearing a face mask as I greet presidents, prime ministers, dictators, kings, queens, I don’t know. Somehow, I don’t see it for myself.”

Translation: He wasn’t going to wear a mask because he was afraid it would look funny. And now, we’re supposed to believe he’s a convert — even though as late as Tuesday evening he was spotted in a small group at the Trump International Hotel, sans mask.

I’ve spent too much of my life worrying about looking funny, about not fitting in, both as a partially deaf person living in a world dominated by the hearing and as an L.G.B.T.Q. woman living in a world dominated by straight and cis people. I’m tired of living in a world in which hearing people never think about the rest of us. I’m tired of living in a world in which transgender people constantly have to explain and justify the facts of our existence. I’m tired of living in a world in which, for some white people, the simple statement that Black lives matter is somehow considered radical.

It is not the degree to which we all can resemble the supposed majority culture — straight, abled, cis, white — which ought to determine whether or not we can live our lives with dignity and peace. It is the degree to which we celebrate our diversity, in all its messy abundance. You want to make America great again? In the words of David Bowie, turn and face the strange.

As I left the hospital after my mammogram, I told the technician where she could get a pair of boots like mine. They were made by a company called Sorel and were called “Cate the Great.” I mentioned another couple of boot companies I liked as well.

“OK,” she said. “Thanks for the tips.”

For just a second, I paused, uncertain. Had I heard her right?

“Tips,” she said firmly. “I said tips.”