Deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals frustrated with COVID-19 barriers

To avoid damage to his hearing aids, Tony Cuylle, who is hard-of-hearing, uses a crochet band with buttons to attach his mask and sit behind his neck. Photo by Mattea Columpsi.

Many individuals with a hearing disability develop the skill of reading lips as a visual cue, but mandatory masks have made it difficult for them during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I would encourage people when they are dealing with the public to put your hands over your ears,” said Tony Cuylle, who is hard-of-hearing and serves the public as parts manager for Nissan and Infiniti. “See what it is like when your hearing is minimalized and you can’t see your person’s lips.

“See what it’s like because it’s not fun.”

The obstruction of mandatory masks has hindered how Cuylle communicates with his customers, creating unwanted frustration.

“I have had customers get mad at me and want to deal with someone else because I kept saying, ‘I can’t understand you,’ ” said Cuylle.

“I explained to them I have hearing aids and to speak up. One customer, in particular, was very upset and told me, ‘I can’t deal with you, you need to bring in someone else,’ and I am the manager of the department.”

Patricia Spicer, a vocational counselor, and worker who is deaf has also felt the barrier of masks.

“Masks are a huge issue not just for me, but every deaf and hard-of-hearing person,” Spicer said through Karen Nurkowski, a sign language interpreter at Saskatchewan Deaf and Hard of Hearing Services.

“Before masks, I would type something on my phone and communicate that way, but now of course with COVID nobody wants to touch anything. Everyone wants to avoid getting close so you can’t even show them to read a note.”

For individuals like Cuylle and Spicer, an everyday task becomes more dreaded and difficult.

“I am constantly having to explain that I have a hearing disability,” said Cuylle. “I am 56 years old. It’s kind of embarrassing to have to explain that all the time.”

Anyone with hearing aids risks damaging them as they get tangled in the mask straps and pulled out.

“If I’m not careful and I pull the mask off, the hearing aids come flying out of my ear,” said Cuylle.

“I am constantly having to explain that I have a hearing disability. I am 56 years old. It’s kind of embarrassing to have to explain that all the time,” said Tony Cuylle. Photo by Mattea Columpsi.

To combat this issue, Cuylle’s partner bought him a crocheted band that sits behind his neck and hooks onto the mask straps.

“Now, it’s easy to put my mask on because I flip up, and I am done,” said Cuylle. “It’s not touching my ears. When hearing aids are so expensive, it’s been a lifesaver for sure.”

Cuylle’s hearing aids cost $3,000 per piece. Some retail for more than $4,000 per piece.

To help him hear, Cuylle uses a SurfLink, a wireless device that connects to his hearing aids to focus sound. Cuylle doesn’t leave the house without it.

“It makes it a lot easier to understand what people are saying when they have a mask on and I can’t see their lips,” said Cuylle.

“As long as they are speaking clearly and slowly I can hear them better with my SurfLink. Without this device, it’s next to impossible.”

Like many, Cuylle is anxious for the pandemic and mandatory masks to be done so he can resume life as normal. Until then, he hopes the public will show more compassion and tolerance to those with a disability.

“It’s not just a hearing disability, it’s any disability,” said Cuylle. “Be a little more sympathetic. If someone is explaining to you that they have a hearing disability then speak clearer, speak louder, or write it down if you have to.

“It’s a sad world out there. There is no tolerance for anything anymore. Especially with this pandemic, people are just at their max for tolerance.”

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