ORLANDO, Fla. - At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Bill Cooper, an ASL instructor at the University of Central Florida's School of Communication Sciences and Disorders, went virtual. Online teaching and learning are challenging for everyone, but Cooper has been deaf since birth, the result of a traumatic delivery.
"My face was blue as I was born," he shared. "They thought I was dead."
As a child, American Sign Language became his lifeline. Now, Cooper teaches ASL to college students.
"I'm an exceptional student education major," said Abbie Brown, a UCF sophomore. "For me, personally, that means I want to work with kids with disabilities."
Cooper said he needs to see his students' hands and faces. The masks that keep people safe from COVID also prevent lip-reading and block facial expression.
"It's a visual language, you know," he said. "When you're signing with someone and also you're able to sort of see their speech and everything," Cooper explained through an interpreter.
"So, when you remove facial expressions, it's incredibly hard to understand the nuances or the context of what somebody is saying," Brown illustrated.
One solution is a clear mask like the one worn by Cooper's interpreter, Crystal Mallozzi. Cooper said he's also paying very close attention to the parts of the face that are visible.
"You know, I can see your facial expression," he said. "If your eyebrows go up or down, I can see if you're happy or upset."
For online classes, Cooper uses a large monitor, and he asks his students to have an empty background so he can focus on their fingers.
"The students think that ASL is maybe beautiful, and that's why a lot of folks are fascinated with it," Cooper said.
The National Association for the Deaf has additional recommendations for people who need assistance communicating right now.