When IU senior Katherine Brown enters a silent classroom, she can hear everything.

A student seated next to her clears her throat. As a student sits in a chair nearby, she can hear the seat squeak. Across the room, her professor shuffles through her bag. Brown adjusts her hearing aids and moves to focus on the notebook in front of her.

Her biology professor begins to speak to the class while, of course, wearing a mask. Brown can’t watch her professor’s lips move.

Sometimes, Brown, a biology and psychology double major, misses out on information in class despite how hard she pays attention to the professor speaking. When she talks to her peers with masks on, she may just smile, nod and occasionally laugh even if she doesn’t know what is being said.

Her hearing aids amplify the sound frequencies she might not be able to hear normally. However, she has an auditory processing disorder that prevents her from filtering out background noise.

The treatment for each contradicts the other, Brown said.

Brown exists as a person who is hard of hearing in a world dependent on hearing, she said. The COVID-19 pandemic has made it more difficult to obtain the accommodations she already has to advocate for daily. She said she used to lip read to understand what people were saying. Now, she doesn’t have that option.

“With COVID, it’s the same thing,” Brown said. “Just worse.”

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IU senior Katherine Brown shows her hearing aid Oct. 19, 2021, outside of Goodbody Hall. She began wearing hearing aids when she was in fourth grade.

When the COVID-19 pandemic began, the world faced extraordinary challenges in communication, social interaction and safety. Jobs became virtual, students took online classes and only saw their peers in person in a sea of mask-covered faces.

Vaccine availability and fewer hospitalizations nationwide have allowed for mask mandate removals. As of Nov. 29, the COVID-19 positivity rate in Monroe County is 5.78%, according to the Indiana COVID-19 dashboard. IU students can take masks off while outdoors on campus. Bars, restaurants and clubs are open and full of largely maskless crowds.

Other than the use of masks indoors, it seems like normalcy has almost returned.

For the Deaf and hard-of-hearing community, however, some of these challenges persist.


In the Deaf community, American Sign Language is the primary language used to communicate. It is a visual language expressed by movements of the hands and face, and it has its own signals for pronunciation and grammar.

Brown said the Deaf community includes many kinds of people with different ways of communicating. Some Deaf people only use ASL, while others only speak English. There is not one typical Deaf person, Brown said.

“The way I learned about the Deaf community is that it’s like a target in the center and there are layers in it,” Brown said. “In the center are people who are fully Deaf, fully immersed in the culture and know ASL. You get through more layers to someone who is Deaf but maybe not fluent in ASL and you get people who are Deaf but don't know ASL.”

Speakers of auditory languages often use vocal inflection to distinguish between a question and a statement. In ASL, speakers use facial expressions and mouth morphemes, which are mouth movements that convey an adjective, adverb or another descriptive meaning in association with an ASL word to convey meaning.

Kathrine introduces herself in ASL

Sign names are generally given to a deaf person from another member of the Deaf community. Brown said her friend gave her the name because she reminded her of a cat and because Brown's name begins with "kat".

ASL grammar is also displayed through facial expressions and mouth morphemes. For example, if one’s eyebrows are raised, it signals a yes-or-no question.

Hard-of-hearing students will often read lips to comprehend language. With masks, this is made almost impossible.

When Brown was in kindergarten, she began to lose her hearing. She wouldn’t look at the teacher during class and would have trouble completing certain assignments. Her teacher told her parents she wasn’t paying attention in class, but it was because she couldn’t hear what was being said.

The school recommended she see an audiologist, a medical professional who diagnoses and balances hearing problems. Brown and her mom made the hour drive to see the audiologist, who guided her into a soundproof room with a thick, heavy door. She remained in the room for two hours completing tests.

“It felt like I was inside a box,” Brown said.

The audiologist recommended she use an FM system in the classroom, a device where the speaker talks into a microphone and the listener wears a receiver. It amplified her teacher's voice and reduced any background noise. She wore the receiver on the front of her body like a necklace.

In fourth grade, she started wearing hearing aids.

“The hearing loss didn’t bother me, but I hated wearing them,” Brown said. “Older kids on the bus would call me a cyborg.”

The main reason for the yearly visits was to get tests and have the audiologist adjust the frequency levels of her hearing aids, which she now does on an app herself. Her hearing aids also connect to Bluetooth, so she can listen to music and take phone calls with them.

“I couldn’t wear hearing aids on phone calls before Bluetooth,” she said. “It would be really static-y.”

Brown said going to the audiologist was always fun for her. It was an hour drive from her house, so she had to skip school.

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IU senior Katherine Brown sits outside during an interview Oct. 19, 2021, outside of Goodbody Hall. Brown has been hard-of-hearing since kindergarten.


“My mom would let me get ice cream and pick out a dollar store toy after,” Brown said. “I remember this seahorse I got once. When you squeezed it, it would light up inside.”

During Brown’s senior year of high school, one of her teachers suggested she apply to Gallaudet University, a college for Deaf students in Washington, D.C. Brown said she considered it, but she isn’t fluent in ASL, the primary language at Gallaudet. She would be attending classes while trying to learn the language. In public school, she said she knows how to seek out accommodations because she has done it since kindergarten.

“I’d be attending classes while trying to learn the language,” Brown said.

Brown said IU’s Disability Services in the Division of Student Affairs has accommodated her well. Professors will record lectures and send them to her with a copy of notes. Sometimes, her professors provide live closed captions, meaning a person types what a professor says as they speak.

Brown hopes to go to graduate school for a degree in biology or psychology. She said she’s interested in doing research someday.

“I’m really interested in the connection between the mind and body,” Brown said. “I would also love to research in a field like environmental conservation.”

In the classroom with Katherine Brown, a hard of hearing senior at IU

IU senior Katherine Brown said it is challenging trying to learn in a traditional classroom environment during the COVID-19 pandemic. After she attends her classes in person, she said she will later watch the captioned lecture videos to fill in what she didn't hear.

In a small classroom in Ballantine Hall, students watch professor Rob Loveless describe instructions to his SPHS-A 400: Deaf Culture class in ASL.

The students in his class are all hearing students, so interpreter Pam Patton-Wright translates instructions from ASL to spoken English.

All seven members of the ASL faculty at IU are fully Deaf. The transition to online class provided a challenge for the professors. Rob Loveless, ASL senior lecturer, said none of the ASL faculty had thought to teach an online course given the visual nature of the language.

For the fall 2021 semester, most ASL classes are still being taught on Zoom. Loveless is one of two instructors teaching ASL classes in person.

While most other departments returned to in-person learning, the IU ASL department decided to keep most of their classes online this semester due to COVID-19 mask restrictions. Senior ASL lecturer Debbie Gessinger said she still sees growth in her students despite teaching over Zoom.

“Some students have built more self-confidence at home,” Gessinger said. “We’ve learned to just make the best of the situation.”

Monroe County still has an indoor mask mandate. Until it is lifted, the ASL department plans to keep some classes in person and some online.

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Debbie Gessinger is a senior ASL lecturer at IU. She and her students wear clear masks in class so they can accurately communicate using ASL.
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IU professor Rob Loveless teaches his Deaf Culture class Sep. 29, 2021, in Ballantine Hall. Loveless said the transition to teaching American Sign Language online was a big change for the professors. “It was almost as if we were beginning a new profession,” he said.

“Maybe we’ll find our way 100% back to campus,” Gessinger said. “When we look at expectations, we are learning what we can with what we have.”

Senior ASL lecturer Jill Lestina said she typically relies on slide presentations to deliver information to her students. If she tried to use the “share screen” function on Zoom, she couldn’t point to certain things on the screen.

Lestina conquered this challenge by making the slides her virtual background on Zoom.

“This method has been helpful in terms of making the connection between students and the actual material being taught,” Lestina said.


Lestina, who teaches some classes in person, said she was nervous about the challenge of being unable to see her students’ facial expressions and mouth morphemes during in-person sessions.

However, she said she gave clear masks to her students.

While most other departments returned to in-person learning, the IU ASL department decided to keep most of their classes online this semester due to COVID-19 mask restrictions. Senior ASL lecturer Debbie Gessinger said she still sees growth in her students despite teaching over Zoom.

“I felt like I was giving them this amazing gift,” Lestina said. “It’s very important you have that ability to see people’s facial grammar.”

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IU students sign during an American Sign Language class Oct. 20, 2021, at Lindley Hall. IU professor Jill Lestina provided the class with clear masks. “It’s very important you have the ability to see people’s mouths,” she said.
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IU professor Debbie Gessinger helps students in her American Sign Language class Oct. 20, 2021, at Lindley Hall. Gessinger also teaches ASL classes on Zoom.

In the classroom, Lestina said she can point and describe what a student is wearing. Professors have many options to get a student’s attention in person — they might flash a light or pat on a desk. On Zoom, waving their hands in front of the camera may be their only option, and the student may not even be looking at the screen.

Associate professor of ASL Joe Murray said he deals with similar frustrations during online classes. He said the three-dimensional communication that comes with ASL is completely lost on Zoom.

“We use the space around us to communicate,” Murray said. “There is a great deal of perspective that takes place with 3D communication.”

Murray teaches his fall class online. He said he still struggles with keeping every student’s attention on the Zoom screen because they are all at different locations on the screen and use different devices. If he points to a student who is at the top of his screen, the student may not know they are at the top of his screen.

“It’s been a year and a half of teaching on Zoom,” Murray said. “We’re still adjusting.”

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IU senior Katherine Brown walks to class Nov. 29, 2021, on campus. Brown said IU’s Disability Services in the Division of Student Affairs has accommodated her well.

Brown said it’s possible she will go fully Deaf one day.

She’s thought about what could happen if she completely loses her hearing. She anticipates she’ll experience age-related hearing loss anyway. It doesn’t scare her, but she knows how challenging it could be.

“We live in a world that is really dependent on hearing,” Brown said. “It would be something I’d have to adapt to, but I think it’d be kind of isolating.”

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IU senior Katherine Brown shows her tattoo of the American Sign Language symbol for love Oct. 19, 2021, outside of Goodbody Hall. Brown said she might go fully Deaf one day.

She knows there are solutions, of course. Her hearing aids help, she said, but Brown's auditory processing disorder causes her to hear background noises more intensely, like a chair being pulled out or a backpack being unzipped. She can hear the most subtle noises in a room full of people moving but still feels like she must guess what people are saying when they speak.

The only time she takes her hearing aids out is about an hour before she goes to sleep. Brown said she can barely hear anything without them. She’ll typically sit in her room doing homework in silence for that hour before she goes to sleep.

“Sometimes, it’s nice to have quiet.”


CORRECTION: A previous version of this article includes sensitive information not intended to be published.

Loveless, Lestina, Murray and Gessinger’s interviews were each interpreted by IU ASL interpreter Pam Patton-Wright.

Phoebe Spratt and Carson TerBush contributed to web development.