In the time of COVID-19, we have all experienced some sort of challenge. Whether it’s learning new technologies to work remotely, unexpected loss and health struggles, or cancelled plans, pivots have been necessary. One of the biggest changes is towards making mask-wearing the new normal. Dr. Robert R. Redfield, director of the Center for Disease Control lists wearing protective face coverings as one of the strongest ways to prevent spread of COVID-19. While helping keep ourselves and others safe is a priority, wearing masks presents a new struggle for one particular group: Those who are deaf and hearing impaired.

How Does Wearing a Mask Hinder Communication?

When wearing a mask, you may have noticed how hard it is to project your voice and hear others. Facial expressions are now hindered, making eye and hand movements more important. If speaking, volumes need to increase and annonciation is incredibly important. Imagine what it’s like for those with hearing impairment who rely on lip-reading to understand the message! Even American Sign Language uses facial expressions and lip-reading as key components to comprehension outside of hand movements.

Unfortunately, due to the size and placement of masks over the mouth, it is impossible to see lip movement and hear quieter voices. Those who used to get by on lip-reading no longer have that independence. They are forced to rely on other forms of communication that are more arduous like writing notes or having a constant companion to translate. For essential workers with hearing loss, wearing masks can even prevent them from being able to complete their work, like a grocery store cashier who can’t understand a customer or a teacher who can’t hear a student. Wearing masks may save lives, but it creates confusion and challenges for the hearing-impaired.

A Solution: See-through Masks

The answer to the problem is not removing masks altogether, but altering them. Instead of wearing a cloth mask all the way across lips, mask makers are now inserting a clear plastic panel bound around the border by fabric. This allows those who interact with the mask-wearer to see their lips and facial expressions better.

COVID-19 has certainly ramped up the need for mask wearing, but the invention of see-through masks is not novel to this time. Dr. Anne McIntosh, who is deaf herself, dreamed up this solution after giving birth and not being able to understand the medical staff wearing surgical masks. Through her panic and frustration of not understanding what nurses and doctors were saying to her, she created the Safe ‘N Clear Communicator. Her dream was for medical staff to all wear the masks with the clear window to allow for lip-reading and better communication. It is awaiting FDA approval, but that hasn’t slowed the interest during COVID-19.

Their orders outpace production, creating an opening for a market of other companies like ClearMask, Amazon, Etsy, and other retailers to start making masks with clear window panes. Before purchasing, know that not all masks are medical-grade quality or equally effective. If you are crafty, the Delaware Speech-Language-Hearing Association also created a tutorial for making a see-through mask at home.

Wearing a mask with a window pane is a gift of safety and communication for everyone, especially the lip-readers, in your life.

By: Diana Ford