The Centers for Disease Control continues to recommend wearing cloth face coverings to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in public settings where social distancing is difficult to maintain, such as grocery stores and pharmacies. As more businesses are reopening around the country, wearing face masks to cover the mouth and nose have become the new normal.
But for some deaf workers, that can make it impossible to use lip reading, an essential form of communication they often rely on to speak with hearing coworkers and customers.
"Whenever I first started seeing customers with the masks, I was a little bit frustrated and I had a little bit of anxiety," said Matthew Simmons, who works part-time at a Trader Joe's in Vancouver, Washington. "I heavily rely on lip reading whenever I'm at Trader Joe's, to be able to do my job. And if I can't lip read, then I really can't help as much, and it made me feel very defeated."
As a kid growing up deaf in a hearing family after an infection as a baby, Simmons first learned how to lip read at the John Tracy Clinic in Los Angeles in the 1980s. The teachings were based largely on what's known as the oral method, and Simmons didn't learn sign language until he was a young teenager.
"They had many parents bring their young, deaf babies there to learn how to speak, do lip reading, and communicate in home life situations, in a variety of situations," Simmons said. "I went to that school and it was very heavy into speech therapy and learning what we call lip reading, which basically is looking at someone's face and then I watch their lips and I learned how to do that."
For Simmons, lip reading continued to be a way to communicate with the hearing world, including at his weekend job at Trader Joe's. But when Washington became one of the first states in the United States to experience a major coronavirus outbreak, it became clear that most customers weren't comfortable removing their masks inside the store for any reason.
"I recommended that if someone comes up to me with a question, I gesture to say, 'I'm sorry, I'm deaf. I need to lip read. If you don't mind pulling your mask down for just two seconds to ask the questions and then put it back up, then I'm more than willing to help,'" Simmons said. "And most of them just shook their head and said no, and then walked away. So, that was a very frustrating experience."
His frustration became evident to his manager, who offered to brainstorm solutions to help Simmons communicate more easily without requiring people take off their face coverings. The first idea was to design a shirt simply alerting customers that he is deaf. Then, he was given a white board and markers while working at the cashier stand to be able to communicate through writing.
When plexiglass panels were installed as a COVID-19 barrier, he also wrote on that. "Hello. My name is Matthew. I'm deaf, I read lips," the glass said.
"Things became a lot better at that point," Simmons said. He then decided to post photos of his set up to Facebook, along with an explanation of the whole ordeal. It blew up overnight.
"It's been really inspiring though, because actually it hit many people around the United States and especially other deaf people who were working at Trader Joe's and Walmart and various retail companies," Simmons said. "They've been contacting me for more support and more inspiration. So, it's really nice to see that I sort of became an unofficial trailblazer, essentially. And I was starting the ripple effect, as the ripple effect started. I just didn't expect it."
Simmons also said the silver lining of the whole thing has been the ability to bring more awareness to issues faced by the deaf community, along with an opportunity to spread positivity and kindness through a dark time.
"One woman had come up to me and she said, 'Oh, thank you so much. I saw your story. And I really empathize. My daughter's five and she's hard of hearing,'" Simmons said. "And she saw the story and she felt really touched and wanted to meet me, but she couldn't because of COVID-19. So, that was really sweet because of her daughter.
"And thus far, I've been getting a lot of positive comments from just all over from people," he continued. "And it's really nice to see that they're looking out for a better future, even through COVID."