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Traditional face masks pose challenges for the deaf, hard of hearing

On a recent trip to her local grocery store in Lexington, a woman who is hard of hearing said she felt dismissed due to the barriers of face masks.

LEXINGTON, Ky. —

For many of us, face masks have become part of our everyday lives, and they’re necessary to prevent the spread of COVID-19. But for those who are deaf and hard of hearing, they’ve also become major barriers to communication, with lip-reading now impossible.

On a recent trip to Whole Foods, Kimberly Fugate, a member of Lexington’s deaf and hard of hearing community, said she felt dismissed due to the barriers of face masks. She said her cashier tried to talk with her while wearing a mask. She couldn’t read her lips. 

“And I told her I can’t hear you. And she just dismissed me, she waved her hands," she said. 

After paying, she headed to her car.  

“And the tears just fell," Fugate said. 

She posted about the experience on Facebook. It went viral, with over 59,000 shares.

“I wasn’t expecting it to," she said. “People have told me thank you for spreading the awareness.”

People responded to her Facebook post by sharing photos of their struggle with hearing loss, and the homemade masks they made to fit their needs. For example, traditional masks with strings that go around ears rub against hearing aids and distort sound. Masks more conducive to those with hearing loss go over or around the head, avoiding strings around ears. Other types of masks are clear, so lip-reading is possible. 

“But we need some funds to get those masks," said Virginia Moore, executive director of the Kentucky Commission on the Deaf and Hard of Hearing.

Moore is a sign language interpreter for Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear. She said she hopes clear masks will eventually be distributed to health care workers, cashiers, and anyone else interacting with those who may have trouble hearing.

“And we are trying desperately to figure this out," she said. 

Moore said hearing loss is one of the most common health problems in the country, impacting nearly 700,000 people in Kentucky. For them, Moore said masks, while an important safety measure, have also caused distress. 

“I mean there’s not a whole lot you can hear or understand," Moore said. 

It’s why Fugate now plans on collecting clear masks to give to others who share her struggle.  

“That would be so beneficial," Fugate said. 

Fugate said she never contacted Whole Foods directly about what happened. But after we contacted them about the incident, the company told us they’re now looking into it. 

Whole Foods said they’ve implemented extensive safety measures in stores due to the pandemic, like requiring workers to wear face masks and installing plexiglass barriers, and are grateful for any feedback on how to better serve customers with these new measures in place.

We also contacted Beshear’s office about any action he’s taking to support those with hearing loss amid COVID-19. We’ll let you know when we get those answers. 

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►Contact reporter Paula Vasan at pvasan@whas11.com on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram