Advocates call for New Zealanders to wear 'smile masks' to help Deaf community

While mask wearing has created an important physical barrier to Covid-19, it's created another kind of barrier for those in Deaf community.

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Mask-wearing has created another communication barrier for the Deaf and hard-of-hearing community. Source: 1 NEWS

That's because 11,000 Kiwis rely on sign language as their primary form of communication, and it's about more than just hands.

"Deaf and hearing impaired people, even if they use sign, they need to use lip reading as well because there's information from facial expressions and from lip patterns, and that's part of the full communication in sign language," Deaf advocate Celia King told 1 NEWS.

"It's very difficult with a mask, for example getting on the bus, or buying something, or paying, or asking where you're going.

"If you can't lip read, that information, it just goes right over our heads." 

So she's been foot to the pedal in front of her sewing machine, churning out alternatives. 

Often referred to as "smile masks", the face coverings King's been making have a clear window in them.

Deaf Aotearoa, a national organisation representing those who are hearing impaired, has ordered a large supply of masks with clear windows to distribute in the Deaf community and to around 100 interpreters nationwide.

But King has a message for all New Zealanders.

"I'd like all of NZ to have masks with a window so that it achieves equality for all of us."

"With a mask it's impossible, it's a real disconnection, big time," Merge NZ co-director and sign language specialist Victoria Lessing says.

"Imagine if you had sound, and you remove that sound completely."

As an example, King says: "Recently I went to the vet with my dog, and the vet of course has to wear a mask and I can't lip read him so I didn't understand what they were saying."

Ms King’s even sent a mask to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield.

"I'm a little bit cheeky and I thought, 'Jacinda was talking about how we must wear masks, but how is that going to work for deaf?'," King says.

"I made a red flower mask and I posted it to Jacinda."

Lessing says businesses could lose customers without Deaf-friendly transparent masks.

"My own experience, when people have got a mask on, I just have to leave the café. I don't feel like I want to stay."

Advocates are also hoping, post-Covid, people will make an effort to remove more barriers for the Deaf community.

"I think it would be great for people to learn sign language," King says.

Lessing says many are already taking up that challenge.

"Recently the number of sign language students contacting Merge NZ for classes has tripled for our online learning portals, compared to last year."

Proceeds from King's masks are going to Perfect Partners Assistance Dogs Trust.