See-Through Masks for Hearing Impaired, From Tampa to Britain

June 23, 2020

By: Elizabeth Diaz

Tampa Fla – Today most local counties, including Hillsborough, Pinellas, and Pasco Counties, are taking steps to mandate masks.  For the hearing impaired, this presents a challenge, which masks mandates include exceptions. 

However, if you are hearing impaired and want to wear masks and do business, communication is compromised.  

A reported 348,000 hearing-impaired and/or deaf individuals in Tampa Bay make this area one of the largest deaf populations in the US, according to the Deaf Literacy Center, a Pinellas Public Library Cooperative (2019).

Tampa Bay has been slow to act to serve this community.  As reported in The Tampa Bay Times. January 2019 marked the first “text to 9-1-1” service for the hearing impaired in the area. A crucial, new service that is among many others to come.

Just a year later, masks are a new solution of sorts for virus protection but are also making life extra challenging for individuals with hearing impairments on all scales.

“I rely on lip-reading and hearing aids to take depositions for court hearings,” explained an Apollo Beach resident and a court reporter who has suffered from Tinnitus for years.

“So far, social distancing and video services in court have been very useful resulting in only one deposition where masks were in use so far.  In public, grocery stores, retail stores, and the like, she continued, “I just have people wearing masks scream at me so I can hear them.  A new solution will be really helpful.”

Another hearing-impaired friend wrote about trying to get around the grocery store yelling, “You do what you have to do.”  

For those who solely rely on lip reading, life in a world of masks requires new techniques. According to the Hearing, Speech, and Deaf Center (HSDC)  masks do play a part in slowing the spread of Covid-19 and also standard face masks make lipreading impossible in the hospital, the grocery stores, and other essential businesses. 

In addition, deaf and hard-of-hearing people rely on facial expressions to communicate, so blocking half of the face removes a crucial source of information, the HSDC wrote in April.

Luckily, some enterprising people around the world have come up with ways to make accessible, deaf-friendly masks. Information and instructions were inspired by the DHH Mask Project (Deaf or Hard of Hearing) and are provided online at HSDC.org and can be found on Facebook.

At the HSDC website, full instructions on how to make a mask are available. Here are the supplies needed:

  • Durable fabric. Thicker, mesh recommended over dry-fit material (e.g., flannel better than athletic shirt fabric).
  • Clear plastic. Thick and durable as well (e.g., clear stadium tote bag).
  • Sewing machine, hot glue gun, or needle & thread. Use a sewing machine for the shortest construction time and durability. Hot glue can replace or support sewing.
  • Ruler, marker, scissors.
  • Dish soap.

An April letter from The DHH Mask Project explained the magnitude of the problem globally and how to help each community. Here are their insights in part.

“We never expected the magnitude of interest we received when we decided to adapt the cotton mask, everyone is making for personal use, to the deaf and hard of hearing community. It would be quite impossible for us to fulfill all the requests we have received from all over the world.

“We challenge you to join us in making these masks. We used materials we had on hand in our home and would like to be very clear these are NOT medical-grade masks, they are NOT FDA approved, and they have not been tested in any way. The choice to make and wear these masks is your own.”

The DHH Mask Project started a GoFundMe campaign to offset the cost of material and shipping to its local community. When that goal was satisfied, the GoFundMe campaign was closed. 

“It was never our intent to make any profits from this endeavor. A great number of you have expressed the desire to donate to this cause. We humbly request that, if you can, you donate your time and talent by making these masks for your own community. Imagine the number of deserving people we can reach if we work together. If that’s not possible consider donating to your local ‘Hands and Voices’ chapter or support a teacher next school year.”

The DHH Mask Project recommends following all CDC recommendations for handling the masks and remember these are, according to the CDC, “better than nothing.” Please wash your hands before putting your mask on and after removing the mask.

See-Through Face Mask from The DHH Mask Project

This month, The Guardian, a British-online news source, reported that the 12 million citizens there with hearing difficulties are looking to charities to help supply and fund see-through face masks. 

Ayla Ozmen, head of research and policy for Action on Hearing Loss told The Guardian, “While those who are traveling on public transportation in England with someone who relies on lip-reading are exempt from wearing face coverings, little has been done to publicize this.”  She added that it’s raising concerns that those legitimately not wearing masks may face abuse.

“And there are other problems,” Ozmen said, noting the rules around masks and face coverings in hospitals come into conflict and puts an obligation on health and social care providers to meet people’s communications needs.”

Strong strides are being made around the world to provide medical-grade, see-through masks for individuals wanting and needing the experience of facial expression and communication in these COVID times.