On the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, Emma Faye Rudkin says she’s being forced to start all over again in standing up for her rights.
When face masks became required attire for the pandemic, communication was disrupted for those with hearing loss who depend on reading lips, said Rudkin, 20, who is deaf and is the founder of the non-profit organization, Aid the Silent.
A recent trip to a local gym with a friend highlighted the problem. Rudkin is skilled in reading lips, but when the gym employee at the entrance refused to step back six feet and pull down their mask so Rudkin could see them speak, communication shut down.
It turned out that her gym had established a “no guests” policy. Instead of being able to read the employee’s lips and respond verbally, Rudkin found herself having to rely on her friend to interpret this information and inform the employee of her disability.
Rudkin is an excellent communicator, a national speaker and advocate with more than 47 television appearances. Her achievements include being named Miss San Antonio in 2015 and 2017, and being appointed by Gov. Greg Abbott to the Texas Governor’s Committee on People with Disabilities.
She believes masks and communication are not mutually exclusive.
Her gym experience inspired her to establish the #ShowYourLips and the #ClearToBeClear campaign, an effort to encourage local businesses to use clear face masks or clear face shields so those with hearing loss or those who are deaf can still read lips.
The Aid the Silent organization is selling clear masks on its website, aidthesilent.com, so people can support the deaf. Rudkin also said she is working with her organization on a case-by-case basis to give free clear masks to families and friends who might have a close one who is hard of hearing and may be unable to afford a mask.
"In a time when we are supposed to be moving our community toward to greater inclusion, we are setting people back 10-fold," said Melanie Cawthon, Co-Founder and Executive Director of disABILITYsa, an organization whose mission is "to educate, advance, and engage individuals with disabilities by sharing information, creating opportunities, and strengthening organizations that serve them."
Cawthon said masks that cover the mouth also limit people from effectively using American Sign Language, in which facial expressions are a key part of communication, as explained here.
In a Facebook video, Rudkin describes her frustration about being forced to depend on others due to the mask barrier.
Watch the video here:
“Going to H.E.B right now is impossible,” Rudkin said in an interview over Zoom “Going to the grocery store is frustrating because it’s a complete detached experience from being human. I just go in and get out. It’s horrifying to be like: ‘Hey, I’m deaf’, like, not even know me, not even interacting with me. They first of all have to know I’m deaf without (me) even saying a word.”
“Going to movie theaters and not having captioning, to be able to navigate going to school and college, it’s constantly an ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) fight,” said Rudkin. “The video was a result of experiencing the intensity level, the level of fear that has gotten to the point where I am being turned away from businesses and people are just not really willing to find that common ground.”
Rudkin has been advocating for herself and her community since she was a child. It’s not unusual for her to stand up for herself in situations like the one she described in her video.
“(They would) tell me ‘we’re advocating for you but, we’re going to teach you, because you’re going to do it for yourself’,” Rudkin said about her parents and upbringing. “Little did I know, not only would I grow up to do it for my own advocacy, but for all in the world.”