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Gov. Herbert’s school mask mandate will marginalize hearing impaired students

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Gov. Gary Herbert puts on a face mask after speaking at a press conference at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Thursday, July 9, 2020.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

Gov. Gary Herbert’s announcement that Utah schools K-12 will be under a face covering mandate for at least fall of 2020 ignores and marginalizes hearing impaired students who hear with assistive devices, such as hearing aids or cochlear implants. 

My son, who has bilateral cochlear implants, describes face coverings as a hearing impaired person’s worst nightmare. This is not because he is wearing a mask, but because others are. Hearing impaired individuals who hear with assistive devices do not hear as someone with natural hearing. The assistive devices provide access to the sound of language, but a hearing impaired individual’s understanding is supplemented importantly with lip reading and facial expressions, both of which are flatly cut off when the speaker is wearing a mask. 

More critically, masks have a terrible muffling effect on the speaker’s voice. Think about the last time you asked a person wearing a face covering to repeat herself, for example, when placing an order in a restaurant. Consider a hearing impaired person with assistive devices in the same setting — completely cut off from any chance of understanding the mask-wearing speaker.

In an educational setting, this detrimental effect is compounded educationally, socially and emotionally. My son is in junior high. He stands out with his cochlear implants, but owns it. He is not ashamed of his disability and considers it part of his personal identity. He was enrolled in the Sound Beginnings Program at Utah State University (an early education program for hearing impaired children whose families want their children to listen and talk) when he was 18 months old. He effectively maintained the schedule of a full-time elementary student from age 3 onward, all with an eye toward having an educational experience equivalent to a hearing student. He achieved that goal, and since kindergarten he has been in a mainstream classroom.

The governor’s face covering order will now put him and other hearing impaired students with assistive devices on an island. Even if teachers wear clear face shields and have their voices projected into the hearing impaired student’s devices (this technology does exist and is likely already in use in a hearing impaired student’s classroom), they will not hear comments that other students make in a classroom.

They will not be able to stop and have a conversation with a mask-wearing friend in the hallway. Working with a group in the classroom will be nearly impossible. Having a conversation while waiting in line in the lunchroom — what’s the point? It will just be too hard. The natural tendency will be to do exactly what we as parents of hearing impaired kids have worked so hard to discourage: introversion and self-isolation; reverting into and embracing a world of silence instead of constantly striving to maintain a place in a world of sound. 

While students’ health must be a priority, the potential long-term effect the governor’s order will have on hearing impaired students with assistive devices cannot be ignored. This is a call to the governor to open a dialogue with informed educators, parents of hearing impaired students and hearing impaired students themselves, to find a solution to this problem. 

Eric Smith is the father of 13-year-old hearing impaired son.