Deaf occupational therapist shares her tips on communicating with the hearing impaired through masks

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Tasneem Ahmed reads lips and facial expressions to communicate but with the compulsory wearing of masks, it’s become a little tougher to enegage with people. (Photo: Supplied)
Tasneem Ahmed reads lips and facial expressions to communicate but with the compulsory wearing of masks, it’s become a little tougher to enegage with people. (Photo: Supplied)

She relies on seeing people’s faces to better understand them, but this was became impossible when the coronavirus pandemic hit. Like many other hearing impaired people, Tahseen Ahmed reads lips and facial expressions to communicate but with the compulsory wearing of masks, it’s become a little tougher to enegage with people.

“Masks are important, but they introduced new challenges for the deaf and hard of hearing,” she tells YOU. “It makes communication more difficult as it prevents lip reading and seeing facial expressions. For us, these are a vital part of communication.”

Even shopping for basics became a challenge, she says. “I’ve had to deal with the impatience of others who don’t know I’m deaf. When they are speaking to me in the shops with their mask on, I can’t see their lips or facial expressions, so I don’t know they are talking to me.”

Tahseen (37) works as the chief occupational therapist at Groote Schuur Hospital in Cape Town. Her colleagues know she’s deaf and have been very supportive during this time. “If I’m working in a ward where it’s not safe to take off masks, the doctors use a pen and paper to communicate with me or type a message on their phone,” she says.

Communicating through masks is the latest battle in a series Tahseen has overcome. She was born deaf, but her mother didn’t allow her to treat it as a disability.

“She’s my hero, my inspiration and role model. My mom doesn’t believe in, ‘No, I can’t do it’. So, I had to give it my best. There were times when I’ve failed, but she reminded me to get up again and try again.”

Groote Schuur Hospital
Groote Schuur Hospital. (Photo: Gallo Images/Getty Images)

In 1995 Tahseen had cochlear implant surgery in her right ear. Even though she’s completely deaf in the left ear the implant “made a big difference,” she says. Tasneem could hear softer sounds such as birdsong, the sound of the waves at the beach and a kettle whistling thanks to the implant.

She’s always wanted to make a difference so after matric she enrolled at the University of the Western Cape. “In 2007 I was the first hearing impaired individual to graduate in the occupational therapy department,” she says proudly.

But going to university was a huge challenge at first. Not only were the classes much bigger, but Tasneem was too shy to approach the lecturers to explain her difficulties in class to them, and soon she felt like she was falling behind.

Instead of giving up, she got an occupational therapy mentor to tutor her at home. Back then she says there was minimal support for differently abled people, “but I am glad to see things are gradually changing”.

After completing her community service at Lentegeur Hospital in Mitchells Plain, she gained experience as a senior occupational therapist at Tygerberg Hospital. In 2013 she was hired as a chief occupational therapist at Groote Schuur Hospital.

“I’m also a certified lymphoedema therapist,” she adds. Lymphoedema occurs when there is a dysfunction in the lymphatic system, which causes swelling in the arms or legs. Part of Tahseen's job is to treat patients using pressure garment therapy and exercise. “In the bigger picture occupational therapy promotes independence in daily activities such as selfcare, work, leisure and play,” she says.

Though Tahseen clearly loves her job, she has in the past experienced stigma in the workplace. “When I started a new job, people sometimes assumed I couldn’t cope. But I believe in giving hearing people a better understanding of hearing impairment and how they can support hearing disabled individuals.”Look for clues that someone is deaf or hard of hearing. For example, they might be wearing a hearing device and not realise you are talking to them, especially when you are wearing a mask,” Tahseen says.

Their facial expression may indicate confusion; they may answer a question completely different from the one you asked or ask you to repeat something a few times.

Tasneem’s tips to improve communication with people who are hearing impaired

Make sure you have their attention, particularly if you’re wearing a mask. Speak loud and clearly, but don’t shout because shouting makes communication more difficult. “Speak slower than normal, but not too slow. If it takes too long to hear the whole sentence it becomes more difficult to deduce missed words.”

Ask follow-up questions, to ensure they understood what you said. Try using shorter sentences and be mindful of your environment – move away from any kind of distracting noise.

Be patient and empathetic. A little bit of kindness goes a long way. “One of my favourite quotes is by Mark Twain,” Tasneem says. “Kindness is the language which the deaf can hear and the blind can see.”

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