Supporting the mask

Jabaar Cassiem Mohammed, of DeafSA, with his puppy, Max, who is learning to follow instructions in sign language.

Mask wearing is compulsory during the Covid-19 pandemic and the deaf community, many of whom rely on lip reading, fully supports wearing them, says Jabaar Cassiem Mohamed, the provincial director of the Deaf Federation of South Africa.

Mr Mohamed says it isn’t easy for a deaf person to wear a mask but they wear them and they support others who do so out of obedience for the law and out of respect for their fellow citizens.

On his Facebook profile there’s a video by Voice4Ability showing disabled people putting on their own masks. One woman in the video has no arms: she puts on her mask with her feet. One man has a prosthetic hand, he does the same, and another man is blind but wears his mask. The video’s catch phrase is: “I am wearing a mask for you. Can you do this for me?”

Mr Mohamed said many able-bodied people knew the rules but ignored them; if people with disabilities could manage, what excuse did they have?

“No matter how hard or easy it is, the point is, wear the mask to save your life and stop spreading the virus,” he said.

But the masks can cause a lot of frustration for the deaf. Just going to the shop can become an ordeal if you can’t understand what the cashier is asking.

Mr Mohamed said a lot of basic communication could be done by pointing and writing on a piece of paper to explain.

“Some shop staff have a good relationship with us and some don’t, so there are various approaches,” he said.

Somebody donated two plastic visors to him, hoping they might help bridge the gap.

“I wore it once and never again because it misted up so badly,” he said.

People were staring at him as though something was wrong with him, and he could not see through the fog to lip read anyway.

He said he felt like he needed his own mini-wiper blades for the visor.

Instead he decided he would say he is deaf and either write down or show, point or gesture as body language. “I am now used to it,” he said.

But he hopes it will not always be like this.

“I would like it if one day all shops have an app where we can teach our community to order, and then in the shop can show the staff what we are looking for. I know there is online shopping, but not everyone has access to this and it depends what shop you go to.”

Two weeks ago, he was looking for a laptop stand and couldn’t remember what it was called, so he went to the computer shop and showed them a piece of paper. He said the staff reacted very professionally and respectfully.

“They know I am a deaf person as I first showed I’m deaf by pointing with my finger to my ear and then showed the paper and the employee led me to the item.”

Being deaf, he said, had taught him to be prepared but during lockdown it was also important to be adaptable. “We have to adjust and go with the flow,” he said.

Mr Mohamed is an animal lover and has two Rottweilers. Roxy is his older dog but he has a puppy, Max, whom he is training and the puppy has impressed him so much with his capacity to understand nothing but signs, no voice commands.