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Making it loud and clear

Navigating masks in a hearing world

-Messenger photo by Elijah Decious
Katie Netherland, who is about 80% deaf, typically communicates in public and with her own family by reading lips. But since mask wearing started becoming prevalent in public, both Netherland and her hearing-impaired mother have had difficulty doing once simple tasks like shopping.

As a little girl, a 50% deaf Katie Netherland asked her mother to sign to her.

“Read my lips, this is a hearing world,” replied mother Becky Carter, of Manson, insisting she learn a skill that would allow her to communicate more independently as an adult.

But in the age of COVID-19, much of the hearing world has shut out people like the mother and daughter who rely on lip reading to shop for groceries, use public transportation and much more. With the advent of more widespread use to combat the coronavirus, they said fewer and fewer workers in retail have been willing to pull down their masks for even a moment to communicate.

To this day, Carter, who has had significant hearing loss her whole life, doesn’t regret saying that.

“You can still get by a whole lot better in this world,” she said.

-Messenger photo by Elijah Decious
Hearing impaired mother Becky Carter and her nearly-deaf daughter, Katie Netherland, have encountered issues many don’t think about as masks have become more common in public.

“Apparently not,” her daughter, now about 80% deaf, replied in jest.

Something they once took for granted has become a point of frustration, making simple public tasks something with potential to become loathsome.

Growing up with hearing loss, Netherland learned to read lips. After fifth grade, she went to school at the Iowa School for the Deaf in Council Bluffs, where she was bullied for not yet knowing sign language.

“They would call me ‘stupid hearing person,'” Netherland said, signing the gesture they used to insult her.

Being able to talk was another strike against her as a child, the now-34-year-old Fort Dodger said, but later that feeling of not fitting in went away.

-Messenger photo by Elijah Decious
Katie Netherland, left, and her mother Becky Carter sign American Sign Language.

Until now.

“It’s bad enough that some people don’t repeat themselves,” said Netherland, who is used to asking that — but it doesn’t do any good now when they cover the one thing she needs to see to understand them.

“They keep talking, like they don’t understand,” she said, if she’s lucky.

In the worst instances, they laugh at her or mock her when she explains she’s mostly deaf, or go about talking to others without repeating themselves with the mask off.

At some locations, she’s forced to use self-checkout registers. At others, the lack of ability to see what others say meant she had to walk out altogether after sometimes humiliating experiences.

“I hate being mostly deaf, I wish I was hearing,” she said as her eyes welled up and voice briefly cracked when asked to reflect on how the experiences have made her feel.

When shopping at big-box stores and grocery stores, she often has to find a friend she knows working that day that will take their mask off. Lately, she’s opted to shop more at Amazon, or have a friend help find a particular item for her when she doesn’t know where to look.

Carter has had similar difficulty that resulted in confrontations. Often, she finds that the manager of the store is the only one willing to help by taking the mask off for a moment.

“My granddaughter was with me and got embarrassed,” she said of one instance, when the frustration boiled over. “I was not real nice.”

But it shouldn’t be that hard. So in a hearing world, Netherland and Carter are speaking out as a voice to the deaf and those with hearing loss like them.

“Hearing loss is not that obvious, especially if you talk,” Carter said. “But (masks are) really a problem for hearing-impaired people.”

Netherland said many who have known her for years before now didn’t realize she was mostly deaf.

The solution to help out folks like them isn’t hard, they said. Just listen to their request, step back a safe distance, and pull down the mask for a few seconds. For those interested in taking an extra step, they said clear masks that leave the lips visible are available, too — something they would be eager to see more retail employers and public services adopt.

They simply hope you hear them, loud and clear.

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