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YOUR HEALTH: The downside of wearing masks

They may protect us from COVID, but they block some people's communication

ORLANDO, Fla. — At the height of the pandemic, instructor Bill Cooper went virtual. 

Online teaching and learning is challenging for everyone but Cooper has been deaf since birth, the result of a traumatic delivery.

"My face was blue as I was born. They thought I was dead."

As a child, American Sign Language became his lifeline. 

Now, Cooper teaches ASL to college students like sophomore Abbie Brown..

"I'm an exceptional student education major. For me personally, that means I want to work with kids with disabilities."

Cooper needs to see his students' hands and faces. 

The masks that keep people safe from COVID prevent lip reading and block facial expression.

"It's a visual language, you know, when you're signing with someone and also, you're able to sort of see their speech and everything," he said.

Approximately 466 million people worldwide have disabling hearing loss and of those, 34 million are children. 

One in every ten people will have disabling hearing loss and it's estimated that by 2050 the number of people disabled by hearing loss will grow to almost 900 million.

One of the best lines of defense against the COVID-19 virus is a face mask that covers both the mouth and nose blocking virus droplets from contaminating the air. 

However, they also block half of our facial expressions hindering nonverbal communication cues. 

This particular hurdle has uniquely impacted those with disabled hearing.

"So, when you remove facial expressions, it's incredibly hard to understand the nuances or the context of what somebody is saying," said Brown.

One solution: clear masks.

Transparent masks offer more visual information, like lip movement, helping those with disabled hearing feel less isolated while also promoting effective, safe, communication.

The National Association for the Deaf has additional recommendations for people who need assistance communicating right now. Find those resources here.

Cooper said he's also paying very close attention to the parts of the face that are visible.

"You know, I can see your facial expression, if your eyebrows go up or down, I can see if you're happy or upset."

For online classes, Bill uses a large monitor, and he asks his students to have an empty background so he can focus on their fingers.

"The students think that ASL is maybe, beautiful! And that's why a lot of folks are fascinated with it."

If this story has impacted your life or prompted you or someone you know to seek or change treatments, please let us know by contacting Jim Mertens at jim.mertens@wqad.com or Marjorie Bekaert Thomas at mthomas@ivanhoe.com.