July 30, 2020 / 9:27 AM / 13 days ago

Face masks leave Britain's deaf community struggling to communicate

A vending machine selling protective masks is seen, following the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Ilford, London, Britain July 29, 2020. REUTERS/Hannah McKay

LONDON (Reuters) - The introduction of mandatory face masks in most enclosed spaces across Britain was designed to protect people during the pandemic but has made life very difficult for the deaf community.

Face coverings prevent lip reading and hide facial expressions, making it virtually impossible for the 12 million people who are either deaf or suffering with hearing loss in Britain to communicate and forcing many to stay at home.

Mangai Sutharsan, director of Empowering Deaf Society, said she understood why masks were important to help counter the spread of COVID-19 but the introduction had increased her anxiety about going into public spaces.

“Personally I’m frightened to go to the shop and to mix where people are wearing masks,” she told Reuters in sign language, translated into English by an interpreter.

“People don’t know I’m deaf so they’ll be talking to me but I won’t know it, or I won’t understand them which is embarrassing. This is really stressful.”

A survey in May for the Office for National Statistics showed that those with hearing problems were already less likely to leave their home during the pandemic and a charity supporting those with hearing loss say masks is making that worse.

“Communication for many is virtually impossible and it’s a huge challenge causing massive anxiety,” Ayla Ozmen, head of research and policy at Action on Hearing Loss, told Reuters.

Those travelling with, or providing help to deaf people are exempt from wearing face coverings under the rules, and some manufacturers have begun making masks with clear plastic panels, but these are not yet widely available and they can steam up.

Writing by Kate Holton; editing by Philippa Fletcher

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