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Read my lips? Not if you can’t see them. For deaf and hard of hearing Mainers, communicating through face coverings amid the pandemic has become all but impossible.

Bill Nemitz, of the Portland Press Herald, interviews Owen J. Logue, Executive Director, regarding the impact of wearing face masks on the deaf and hard of hearing community.

Read the complete intervew below or click HERE.

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It’s currently public-health message Number One: No matter what else you do amid the COVID-19 pandemic, wear a face covering when you’re out in public.

Now put yourself in Owen “OJ” Logue’s place.

“Say you’re my customer service guy at Home Depot,” Logue said in a Zoom interview. “I’m 10 feet away from you – and I want to buy 12 new windows. I’m trying to make a business deal with you, but I don’t understand you.”

Logue is deaf, has been since he was an infant. Now the executive director of the Maine Educational Center for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing/Governor Baxter School for the Deaf in Falmouth, he understands the need for masks to slow the spread of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

But like so many others in Maine’s deaf and hard-of-hearing community, Logue also knows this: When much of your ability to converse with others depends on your ability to read their lips, the typical cloth mask becomes tantamount to a muzzle.

“All my life, 24/7, (reading lips) is what I’m doing,” agreed Terry Morrell, director of the Maine Department of Labor’s Division for the Deaf, Hard of Hearing & Late Deafened, in a separate telephone interview assisted by an interpreter. “And, you know, lip reading is hard. It’s very hard.”

Quantifying Maine’s deaf and hard-of hearing population is not easy, especially when it comes to those who experience partial or full loss of hearing later in life and, in too many cases, go uncounted.

But a 2017 survey by the National Center for Health Statistics put the percentage of Mainers with any hearing loss at 21.9 percent. Based on Maine’s population of 1.34 million people, that’s just under 300,000 of our friends, family members and neighbors who struggle to varying degrees with the auditory world around them.

Not all may be aware of how much they depend not just on the sound of someone’s voice, but also the movement of a person’s lips, the look on one’s face, even the expression in the eyes, to glean the meaning of what’s being said.

Cover most of that up with a mask and where does that leave you?

“It’s just been almost beyond comprehension to describe the frustration of what day to day looks like,” said Logue, who relies on hearing aids and lip reading to communicate.

Back to the Home Depot encounter – or any in-person retail or service transaction, for that matter.

Upon explaining that he is deaf, Logue said, he’s asked people in such situations to step back a safe distance and drop their masks momentarily so he can understand what they’re telling him.

“I’ve had people say, ‘Sorry, I can’t. I won’t. It’s company policy. I cannot do that. I won’t take it off,’” he recalled. “So, I’ll say, ‘I’m sorry, I can’t do business,’ and I’ll walk off. And they can’t believe I’m walking off.”

Morrell has had the same experience. Recently he tried without success to buy a certain type of cheese at a deli counter but gave up in frustration because, try as the masked associate did to clarify the request, Morrell had not a clue what the person was saying.

Writing messages back and forth might work for some, Morrell said, “but I just can’t. I’m not a good writer – you can’t read my handwriting. So that’s one of the challenges, for sure.”

Then there’s televised news, one of Logue’s primary peeves. He’s lost count of the number of times reporters in spacious outdoor settings, with no one else in sight, still deliver their reports with masks affixed over their mouths. He’s even seen photos where the reporter has a mask on but no one among the surrounding production crew is wearing one.

He understands the optics. What baffles and irritates him is the logic – or lack thereof.

“People say to me, ‘Why are you so hard on the newscasters when they wear masks? They’re showing respect,’” Logue said. “I disagree. They’re not showing respect to me as a deaf person.”

There are solutions, however imperfect. Logue and Morrell are part of a team that has spent recent months compiling and testing a wide variety of clear plastic face shields and masks with transparent windows over the mouth.

Logue gives Hannaford supermarkets particularly high praise for equipping store personnel with such devices. Other retailers large and small, even if they’re unable to deploy transparent face coverings for all employees, should at least have one or two on hand for those customers who would benefit from them, he said.

“I actually provided a shield to my local pharmacist,” Logue said. “I had a pharmaceutical question I needed the answer to, and I didn’t understand him.”

The pharmacist, much to his credit, went out and bought a supply of clear masks. “I get it,” he told Logue appreciatively. “I have other deaf consumers and elderly who would benefit from being able to see my lips.”

Then there are the children. The Maine Educational Center for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing works with schools all over Maine to serve more than 500 kids (out of about 800 statewide) who are deaf or hard-of-hearing. As complicated as school reopening plans already are, imagine the added layer for a child who can’t see what the masked teacher is saying, be it in person or online.

“We very much hope to return to school as much as we possibly can.” Logue said. And while virtual lessons are better than nothing, “we’re going to try to do face-to-face instruction as much as we can.”

To be clear, this is not an argument against wearing face coverings. If we’re going to blunt the spread of COVID-19 until an effective vaccine becomes widely available, covering our mouths is the best prescription we have.

Rather, it’s yet another reminder that this pandemic affects many different people in many different ways. Some struggle with their mental health, others have trouble finding enough food, while still others punch the clock each day as if it were a game of chance – maybe I’ll get COVID-19 today, maybe I won’t.

Just remember that amid this sea of uncertainty are thousands of fellow Mainers now grappling with that most fundamental human activity – our ability to communicate with each other.

It’s not enough just to listen to them. They can’t hear what they can’t see.