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Masks and Communication with Deaf People – What’s the Solution?

A blue mask with white trims made of paper laying on a wooden surface.

Lipreading is challenging enough for me as a deaf person. It gives only about 30% of visual information and the rest is a lot of guesswork and filling in the blanks. When a person wears a mask, it’s a nightmare for me as well as for many other deaf and hard of hearing people. It’s difficult even for those who wear hearing devices.

I became deaf from meningitis when I was 2 years old. I remember being frustrated with not being able to understand what people say and being even more scared of doctors many of whom wore masks that covered their mouths. Even though I would not be able to understand them even without masks, at least if I see their faces, I could see their facial expressions. Hospitals are scary enough for adults, they are even more scary for young children. So if a deaf person or especially a deaf child can see a smile on a doctor’s face, they can be more relaxed.

As an adult, I communicate with doctors mostly via writing and most of them usually don’t wear masks. A dentist is the doctor that I usually see wearing a mask. I can communicate with him before and after a procedure. The dentist makes simple gestures if needed during a procedure. So I can feel comfortable.

The other time I had doctors wearing masks was when I had a cochlear implant surgery. I remember how nervous I was getting the closer my operation time came. A sign language interpreter was provided to me – not only for the surgery, but also during the whole process from CI evaluation to CI surgery to CI activation. So I felt comfortable knowing what was going on as all information was relayed to me through sign language interpreters.

When it was time for me to go to a surgery room, however, the interpreter was asked to put on a surgical mask. I got nervous. You may think that just seeing hands is enough. No, it is not. When using interpreters, I not only watch their hands, but also their face and mouth. When their face is covered, I get less visual cues and more nervous. I rely on lipreading a lot, even with sign language. So I asked the surgical team to let the interpreter remove the mask. At first, they got hesitant, but then decided to let the interpreter not wear the mask when walking with me to the surgery room until the moment I got under the anesthesia. The interpreter also relayed jokes from the surgical team to make me feel more relaxed before the surgery which I appreciated.

I do wish all doctors and medical professionals I interact with could wear clear masks to facilitate lipreading. Even if I communicate in writing or communicate through a sign language interpreter, it would help me when not only an interpreter but also a doctor is wearing a clear mask – it lets me see their facial expressions.

There are many deaf and hard of hearing people sharing the same sentiments. It’s especially critical now during the coronavirus pandemic as more people are wearing masks and it’s not just doctors or medical professionals. People who work in stores are asked to wear masks. Even regular people are advised to wear masks or some kind of facial cover – the latter is due to the shortage of medical masks. This makes it harder for deaf people to communicate.

I know some of you may want to share with me this viral news of the hearing college student who makes clear masks. I’ve seen quite a lot of posts and articles about her online lately. While the enthusiasm of the student is appreciated, I wanted to mention that there are professionally made clear masks already out there and some were created by deaf people:

  • Safe’N’Clear – The Communicator Surgical Mask
    The mask was brought to the market by Dr. Anne McIntosh, a founder of Safe’N’Clear who is deaf. Based on her website description of the mask: “Patented, FDA registered device meets ASTM Level 1 surgical mask standards with the added benefit of a fog-resistant clear window for improved communication. Supported by Interpreters, Doctors, Nurses, Dentists, Hygienists, Orthodontists, and other Health Professionals seeking clearer communication and exceptional protection.”
  • The ClearMask
    The company was launched by Allysa Dittmar, a deaf person, and her business partner to produce a transparent surgical mask. Based on their website description, the mask is also fog-resistant but different from the mask above by being a fully transparent mask. They say that their mask “may be used when FDA-cleared masks are unavailable. Per the FDA, use of these masks in a surgical setting, or where significant exposure to liquid bodily or other hazardous fluids may be expected, is not recommended.”
  • FaceView Mask
    The mask was introduced by Jeanne Hahne, a registered nurse in San Francisco. Her website states: “Our goal is to produce three models of the FaceView Mask. A non-medical model for personal use as a dust mask, a tested medical/surgical model, and a respirator model with N95 certification. Initial prototypes of the personal model are available now, but we still want to perfect this prototype.”

The main issue with clear masks is that they fog. Clear masks that fog are useless for deaf people and may not be much different from regular masks. That’s why the producers mentioned above made sure that their masks are fog-resistant.

As a deaf person, I think that an ideal clear mask would be fog-resistant, fully transparent, professionally made of good quality materials, and FDA approved. Even when the pandemic is over, I think that clear masks will still be useful for various situations and ideally in various models to choose from – ranging from a personal model to a surgical model to an N95 respirator.

I’m most familiar with Safe’N’Clear as it has been mentioned in the deaf and hard of hearing community in the past few years. However, I personally haven’t tested any of the three masks I mentioned above to determine which one is the most effective.

If you are interested in learning more about clear masks or need them for your hospital or your organization or your office, I suggest that you contact those mask manufacturers directly.

Last, but not least, I wanted to remind you that lipreading is not 100% reliable, so clear masks do not replace sign language interpreters or written communication. Not all deaf people are the same or can understand everything by lipreading only, so it’s advised to ask them about their communication needs and preferences – even if you communicate with them with your clear masks on.

Stay safe and well!

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