MONTEVIDEO – In February, before COVID-19 had taken hold in Uruguay, Monica Birnfeld followed the global situation closely on television and feared the advancing pandemic might leave her incommunicado.
A short time later, those fears were confirmed.
Birnfeld has been deaf in both ears since birth and communicates via lip reading, an impossible task when another person is wearing a mask.
She therefore took to social media to call for the manufacture of transparent face coverings, never imagining that her advocacy would trigger the passage of a new law.
“When I saw everyone wearing masks, especially in China and Europe, I said, ‘if this happens in my country, I’m in trouble’ … When it came to Uruguay, it was just as I’d imagined, a 100 percent blackout,” Birnfeld said in an interview with EFE.
In response, she posted a letter on her daughter Mariel Lichtmann’s Instagram account, where she explained the plight of those unable to carry on a conversation without seeing other people’s lips move.
Birnfeld told EFE that, despite increasing inclusion for the hearing impaired virtually everywhere in the world, there was not an immediate realization amid the coronavirus pandemic that masks were excluding deaf people.
In her letter, she mentioned the difficulty she faced when she needed to call a doctor to her home to attend to a family member.
She said she was unable to hold a conversation with the health professional and had to resort to contacting her daughter – using her phone’s speaker – so the latter could relay the indications to her via WhatsApp.
Citing those and other difficulties, Birnfeld stressed the need for “inclusive and accessible communication” in Uruguay.
“After (the letter) was published, Sen. Carmen Asiain (of the ruling National Party) asked to meet with us … The following day we went to her office and she proposed a bill,” Lichtmann told EFE.
The senator told EFE that she drafted that legislative proposal in 24 hours and introduced it to Congress on an urgent basis.
“It’s a law based on a very laudable aim, which is to facilitate free communication. But since it’s a restriction on freedom, it has to be grounded in law to make (the use of transparent masks) mandatory,” the senator said.
She noted, however, that the bill does not stipulate that standard masks must be replaced by transparent ones, but instead merely requires that the latter be available for use if necessary at any place of direct communication with the public.
Published on Oct. 21, the law regulates “the use of facial protection masks or other contagion prevention devices” in public service spaces and live television connections.
The goal is to enable “lip reading whenever communication is established with people who need to read lips to understand their conversation partner.”
The legislation will ensure greater protection for the human right of communication, Asiain said.
For her part, Birnfeld said she had expected a longer delay in getting the law on the books and hailed the fact that Uruguay is a “pioneer globally” on this issue.
Lichtmann also said she is pleased about what has been achieved thus far, but now has turned her attention to a new project: ensuring that closed captioning is available for viewers of domestic television channels.
“Subtitles solve everything. People who communicate with sign language, people who don’t communicate with sign language, older adults who are losing their hearing, children who are learning to read in early education … They’ll benefit the whole country,” she added.