Abstract

This paper presents the perception and associated experiences of a Korean hard-of-hearing immigrant special education researcher as the COVID-19 pandemic unfolded. These experiences include the rise of hate crimes against Asian Americans; increasing evidence that face coverings are a vital public health tool; the knowledge that face coverings can increase the risk of racist violence; and difficulty communicating with people who are wearing most face coverings due to being hard-of-hearing. It provides supportive resources, strategies, and hope for educators, disability rights advocates, and families of individuals who are Deaf or hard-of-hearing, promoting public awareness and embrace of difference.


"Which face mask do you want to wear?" It was a cold winter day, and the little girl had a slight fever and cold, but was not too sick to go to school. She indicated a face mask with a color-printed image of Disney's Snow White. Later that morning, she entered her classroom proudly wearing the mask and noticed some of her classmates were also wearing face masks with various prints on them. She and her friends talked about their face masks and their favorite print. The little girl couldn't be happier, as the girls she knew were quite envious of her Snow White face mask.

The little girl in the Snow White face mask was me. In the Korean culture where I grew up, wearing a face mask in public was common and anyone who had a cold or cough did it routinely to protect others from germs. By 2019, people in Korea and China were wearing face masks daily to protect themselves from severe air pollution caused by microdust (Joung, 2020). This practice, as well as the norm of protecting others through a face covering when sick, seems to have strongly boosted compliance with mask-wearing at the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Experts also attribute compliance in East Asian countries to collectivist cultures in which people quickly comply with norms to promote the public interest (Lee, 2021).

The joy I took in my Snow White face mask lasted all day, but a short time later face masks became fearsome to me because I experienced severe vertigo and profound hearing loss at the age of ten. The Korean culture of hard work that played a role in my mother's decision to send me to school that day was suddenly less hospitable to me, as it often led to ableism, and I needed accommodation. Face masks muffle sound and render visual cues extremely limited. As a child who was born hearing but grew up hard-of-hearing, I heavily relied on visual cues, including lipreading and facial expressions, and still do, for spoken communication. Thus, long before my peers in the United States were to learn, growing up in a culture where wearing a face mask is common, I learned how face masks hamper communication for people like me. While I do not use American Sign Language, those who do rely on facial expression as an intrinsic part of communicating, which worsens the problem. The U.S. culture of hard work and ableism, much like the Korean one, puts the burden on those who are differently abled to navigate these problems. Yet in a context where mask-wearing was not yet universal, I could perform such navigation.

Fifteen years ago I moved to the United States as a graduate student and learned that, whatever I was supposed to do when I had the sniffles, it wasn't to wear a face mask. When I was sick but felt well enough to attend class and wore a mask, I found, much as Borunda (2020) described, that North Americans are likely to nervously and suspiciously stare at masked faces in public (Borunda, 2020). In a culture without such a norm wearing a mask would seem like catastrophizing a simple cold. So I abandoned the practice. Thus I was unsurprised that people in Asian countries, including Koreans, saw masks as necessary to preserve "a sense of security" even before evidence strongly supported wearing them to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic (Joung, 2020) or that Americans took slowly to mask-wearing.

Doubled fears: Racial discrimination and communication barriers

Since the first report of COVID-19 in Wuhan, China in December 2019, discrimination against Asian people has escalated in the United States (Choi et al., 2020a). This anti-Asian sentiment has roots in a long historical tradition. Since Asian immigrants first became members of U.S. society in the late 1800s (Gee et al., 2009), Asian Americans have experienced discrimination due to our skin color, race, nationality, language (i.e., accented English), culture, stereotypes, and being labelled as "perpetual foreigners" (Gee et al., 2007; Sue et al., 2007). The complication of being perceived as a "model minority" because of the relatively high income and educational attainment of Asian immigrant groups has not changed the fundamental fact that we have never been treated as equals with Whites (Choi et al., 2020b). Since the September 11 attacks, physical and verbal assaults against Southeast Asian immigrants have increased, following a pattern that has included anti-Asian violence and imprisonment during World War II and Vincent Chin being beaten to death in 1982 (Choi et al., 2020c).

In the early days of the pandemic the media and President Trump frequently called it the "Wuhan virus" and "Chinese virus," stigmatizing Asian people. The COVID-19–related articles that I read in major news outlet ran images of Asian mask wearers. I was sad but not surprised to hear that xenophobia, racism, and even hate crimes against Asians escalated in this context (Burton, 2020). Many Asian Americans reported that people around them acted uncomfortable and that racial slurs and racist jokes were common (Ruiz et al., 2020). Stop Asian American/Pacific Islanders (AAPI) Hate received nearly 4,000 hate incident reports between March 19, 2020 and February 28, 2021; while verbal harassment and shunning were the most common type, accounting for 88.6%, 11.1% included physical assault (Stop AAPI Hate, 2020a). 68% targeted women, and while Chinese was the most common ethnicity of those reporting—unsurprisingly, given that the group comprises the largest U.S. Asian group, at 23.2% (Pew Research Center, 2012)—15% were Korean. As the pandemic set in, I felt wearing a face mask might be as risky as not wearing a face mask in public, but I also was sure it was necessary to protect myself and others.

Asian-American communities have responded to the rise of racism and violence in recent months. Stop AAPI Hate has been such a response; the Asian Pacific Policy and Planning Council (a coalition of more than 40 California community-based organizations), Chinese for Affirmative Action, and the Asian American Studies Department of San Francisco State University launched it as a reporting center on March 19, 2020 to track discrimination, violence, harassment, and bullying against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in the United States (Stop AAPI Hate, 2020b). The National Asian Pacific American Bar Association (NAPABA) launched a pro bono Hate Crimes Task Force to offer legal resources to victims (NAPABA, n.d.).

While NAPABA called on Congress in July 2020 to recognize the dire need for "resources and oversight to ensuring language and communications needs are not a barrier to COVID-19 public health knowledge, testing and treatment" for communities that include Deaf and hard-of hearing (NAPABA, 2020), the particular plight of people like me in the current pandemic has received less attention than that of hearing people. However, the organization Asian Signers shares Asian Deaf experiences in the time of COVID-19 on their website and calls for the acknowledgement of human rights and dignity of Deaf Asian Americans (Asian Signers, n.d.). Even before the March 16, 2021 shooting in Atlanta, this included a strong fear of violence, articulated by a Deaf Korean-American artist who said, "Suddenly, [when the pandemic began] I started to not feel as safe. If you don't feel safe in a place you call home, that's traumatic" (Brown, 2020).

I had the same experience, fearfully avoiding going outside and becoming super cautious when I did take a walk for my health in my neighborhood. I waited until after dark, hoping people would not notice my mask or my Asian features. I was relieved when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention officially recommended the use of face covers or masks in public in early April 2020 (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2020) and face coverings finally became a daily norm and mandated in many places. The fear that a mask increased the risk of violence receded, but the underlying fear of becoming a victim of a hate crime remained, a fear I had never known in 14 years living in the United States before March 2020. Racism had always been subtle, difficult to identify or define, in my life. It has been painful to feel the fear of racism and anti-Asian violence and to see my Asian friends suffer from it as well.

The disadvantages of communicating with people wearing masks heightened my sense of vulnerability. As the people around me increasingly appeared in public in masks, I realized just how much I depended on lipreading. At the checkout in a grocery store the cashier said something and stared at me, waiting for my response. Fortunately, my husband was with me, and I looked to him, perplexed. "Oh, yes," he said. He took my cellphone and scanned the rewards membership barcode. I had no idea she was asking for my membership card. A couple of my friends who are Deaf or hard-of-hearing shared similar experiences of communication challenges they encountered. One said, "Same, I cannot understand them. Sometimes, they have to pull down their masks so I can lip-read." Wearing a mask can also exacerbate problems related to being a Deaf or hard-of-hearing person who speaks English as a second language. My friend told me, "I don't speak well so [Americans] have a hard time understanding me compared with when I don't wear a mask. I write down notes or use a speech-to-text app." These are very self-sufficient and capable individuals, and face masks were making them feel helpless and desperate.

The mask-wearing requirements in the United States have varied across states, and some states had exemptions that might include hard-of-hearing as well (Markowitz, 2021). For example, while people in California were required to wear face coverings outside, "persons who are hearing impaired, or communicating with a person who is hearing impaired, where the ability to see the mouth is essential for communication" were exempt (California Department of Public Health, 2020). Florida, where I live, never had a mask mandate, but the state's public health advisory recommending masks provided an exemption when "an individual has one or more medical conditions or disabilities that prevent wearing a face covering," which does not reflect any consideration of people who have difficulty communicating because of masks due to hearing loss (Florida Department of Health, 2020). More importantly, neither state requires service providers to make accommodations to serve people who have trouble communicating when masks are in use, in violation of the Americans with Disability Act.

I got a cochlear implant surgery in early 2020, before COVID-19 was fully felt in the United States, and in the subsequent months I got to see what such accommodations might look like. I had to start relearning how to hear wearing a cochlear implant, which involved regular appointments with my ENT surgeon and audiologist for a period. Since health care workers began wearing face masks throughout the day very soon after my surgery, people in these offices wore clear face masks. Although fogging is an issue with these masks, it is possible to read their lips. Because of this I have felt enormous relief entering the ENT clinic, knowing I would not face communication problems I experience in other public places.

Resources, strategies, and hope

During this surreal time created by the COVID-19 pandemic, I faced two layers of fears of wearing a face mask. Until the vaccine became widely available, mask-wearing was one of the most effective and available ways to secure public health (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2020) regardless of the cultural meaning of mask-wearing and claims about where the virus began. Many people learned the importance of mask-wearing in public, and more people than ever in the United States began wearing masks voluntarily or upon request (Thompson, 2020).

I believe that we need a similar awareness about and understanding of the struggles that people with hearing loss experience because of face masks. Having at least one helping staff member who always wears a clear mask in each grocery store, for example, would be a great help and comfort for people who rely on lipreading. Failing this, having notes and pens available would remove a considerable amount of communication barriers for people with hearing loss.

There are also things I can do as a hard-of-hearing individual and strategies I've learned. The top three I use most are: (1) letting communication partners know that I have hearing loss and need them to speak louder and more clearly; (2) asking communication partners to write down what they want to say to me on a small notebook that I carry with me; and (3) asking communication partners to repeat what they said on a text-to-speech app of my cellphone.

Being an adult gives me certain advantages, and as a special education researcher who has hearing difficulties, I am aching for children with hearing loss and their families in this time. In a Facebook group called "DHH [Deaf/Hard-of-hearing] Teaching during COVID-19" professionals such as educators, audiologists, and speech therapists are sharing resources and discussions about how to educate students with hearing loss amid the pandemic. The A. G. Bell association for children and youth with hearing loss also provides up-to-date news, articles, and resources for families and professionals dedicated to raising and educating children with hearing loss (Bell, 2020).

For myself, this pandemic has been a constant reminder of the importance of awareness and embracing diverse communities and individuals. I continue to contemplate how we can address and respond to the anti-Asian American hatred and racism during and beyond the pandemic. Public awareness, compassion, support, and constant work on discrimination is vital. As an Asian American, I am learning advocacy and safety strategies from Asian American communities. Yet, this should not be the work of Asian communities; it should be the work of all communities in the United States. Likewise Asian communities must respond to their differently abled members, and disability advocates must address intersectionality.

As a special education teacher-scholar, I am acutely aware of the need for awareness of and education about racism in school settings and intersectionality faced by students with disabilities who are from racially, ethnically, culturally and/or linguistically diverse backgrounds. For my own part I will continue to raise awareness of racism and conduct research on strategies to better address racism and educate students and school professionals.

The world we build after the pandemic ends should address the needs of all people. Essential services should be reformed to serve the Deaf and hard-of-hearing, and activism must ensure that racially charged language such as "the China virus" never becomes common again. Doing so requires an understanding of experiences like mine—not only the fear and vulnerability, but also how accommodations can allow people like me to reach our full potential and thereby benefit society overall. With the optimism of an immigrant who chose the United States as my home, I believe that perhaps we are finally ready, together, to build a more inclusive society. I hope to never hear in my mind again—I believe maybe that I will not—the question that has been echoing through this time: "Can you hear my fear?"

Acknowledgement

I would like to express my deepest gratitude to Dr. Shinwoo Choi, who supported my journey of writing this piece of reflection, by sharing her expertise in racial discrimination against Asian Americans.

References

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