Fri. Sep 30th, 2022

With the world in the grip of the COVID pandemic over the past year and a half, most of us have learned to communicate in new ways. Whether participating in digital work discussions, “attending” school in virtual classrooms or talking with friends and family, many of us have had our fill of video conferences.

Yet we’ve developed ways of carrying on daily business while glued to our computer screens, and we’ve also adapted to communicating while wearing masks.

But for the deaf community, mask-wearing and videoconferencing have posed their own unique challenges.

Stefan Palm-Ziesenitz’s mask lets people know that spoken language is ‘pointless’ and that they should sign with him

“Mask-wearing regulations make communication more difficult,” Stefan Palm-Ziesenitz, chairman of Hamburg’s Association for the Deaf, told DW. “Even while wearing masks, deaf people are able to communicate with each other about everyday issues using sign language.”

“But communication with hearing people when they are wearing masks is virtually impossible,” said Palm-Ziesenitz, who is in his late 50s and has been unable to hear since birth.

He asks those who can hear to take off their masks before speaking so that he can read their lips and see their facial expressions. He noted that Hamburg has an ordinance that permits people speaking with the hearing-impaired in public to remove their masks for the duration of the conversation, providing there is enough physical distance.

Pandemic alters signing

The pandemic’s boom in videoconferencing has also had an impact on sign languages themselves.

According to a February 2021 article in Scientific American titled “The COVID Zoom Boom is Reshaping Sign Language,” signs are being modified to accommodate the limitations of video communication.

While sign language users can benefit from videoconferencing because they can see each other, restricted window size can limit expression. “The signing space is expansive,” Michael Skyer, a senior lecturer of deaf education at the Rochester Institute of Technology, told Scientific American. “Even if many signs are produced easily or normally in the Zoom screen dimensions, many are not,” said Skyer, who is himself deaf.

One example is the sign for “body” in American Sign Language (ASL), the article noted, which normally entails a long movement from shoulders to hips. Reduced signing space in video windows has forced some signers to end it at chest level.

New signs emerge

In addition, smaller signs with nuanced movements using only fingers are harder to convey and view on tiny screens.

Likewise, frontal movements are difficult to decipher head-on. This has led to some signers adjusting their …….


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