Zulma Santiago-Zayas takes a photo of herself wearing a designed facemask that has different messages across the mask that are sign language related. (Photo courtesy of Zulma Santiago-Zayas)

How Face Masks Are Leading To Communication Adaptation While Limiting Coronavirus Spread


During this time of uncertainty, face masks frequently used by society. The underlying issue of wearing face masks is the communication gap between human interaction.

Wearing face masks has become a requirement in some public settings and essential businesses.

Without being able to see facial expressions and emotions, deciphering communication becomes difficult. Covering half of the face hides facial expressions that make interactions easier to read.

Michelle Freas, a Santa Fe College associate professor of American Sign Language, explains the communication gap that masks can create.

“Wearing these masks, I can’t hear people as well and it’s very frustrating to have to almost yell,” Freas said. She also added that complexities go beyond the verbal.

“If you’re not seeing somebody smiling and you’re not seeing somebody frowning,” she said, “I’m going to have to read their eyes or their gestures.”

For people who heavily rely on signing with the help of facial expressions and reading lips to communicate, face masks heighten the communication hurdle.

“I think the use of masks are hindering deaf and hearing communities alike,” Freas said. “Especially for the deaf and hard of hearing makes communication very inaccessible.”

Freas said she finds herself speaking louder and enunciating her words when communicating behind a mask.

Zulma Santiago-Zayas, University of Florida American Sign Language Lecturer, expressed the communication difficulties she faces as a member of the deaf community.

Santiago-Zayas communicated in American Sign Language through her interpreter via video relay services.

“I remember the first time I’ve gone out in two weeks, I went to the food store and all these people had masks on, and I’m thinking ‘how am I going to communicate?’” she signed.

“I texted and showed them my phone, and the person sort of moved back,” she signed. “I really feel like the world is separated and that makes it really frustrating, especially because we’re always trying to communicate with people, it’s not easy.”

“People are really good at reading facial expressions because you can see the mouth moving up and down, that’s called a mouth morpheme,” she signed.

Santiago-Zayas signed that a mouth morpheme is when the mouth and the eyes are showing what’s going on. Puffing your cheeks or pursing your lips to emphasize a sign to accompany it.

Santiago-Zayas described how she learned to change her expectations and to think positively about the situation, although she does not enjoy going out anymore, especially with a mask on.

The production of clear face masks that allows the mouth and majority of the lower face to be visible will allow better communication for the deaf and hard of hearing community.

Santiago-Zayas signed that some people in the deaf community feel uncomfortable because it is hard to read their faces and facial expressions. Although it would be easier if most of them wore a clear mask.

Keegan Carr, a crew member of Dick Mondell’s Burger & Fries in Gainesville, said he comes across communication gaps while wearing a mask at work, especially between his co-workers and customers.

“There have been times where I ask the customers to repeat what they said, and it seems as if I am not paying attention,” Carr said. “It has negatively affected me in a way of how customers perceive me.”

Carr said although he doesn’t enjoy wearing the mask while at work, he knows that it will be worth it in the long run for public safety. Carr wants this experience to protect his health as well as his friends.

About Daniel Scherlacher

Daniel is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.

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