July 21, 2020 -- As a primary line of defense against coronavirus, face masks have become the new public norm. However, this barrier of protection has added a barrier of communication for people who are deaf or hard of hearing.
“Due to the pandemic, more and more medical professionals are treating COVID-19 patients from behind a barrier, using masks that impede lip-reading, and not allowing in-person interpreters,” says the. National Association of the Deaf.
Masks hinder not only lip-readers, but also people who do not lipread, “simply because being able to see the mouth movements and facial expressions are helpful cues to basic communications,” the organization says on its website.
The non-profit urges hearing people be inclusive by using visible written communications and clear masks.
“The lack of support has been one of the hardest challenges we have faced at work during the pandemic,” wrote Helen Grote. MD and Fizz Izagaren, MD, in an article published in the BMJ “It leaves us and our D/deaf patients feeling isolated and ignored.”
Grote and Izagaren say that “a focus on ensuring access to transparent masks, and enabling safe, effective communication for health care workers and patients with hearing loss will be a legacy for years to come.”
The FDA has approved one surgical mask with a fog-resistant clear window, called The Communicator.
The company Safe’N’Clearproduces the mask.
Other clear masks, though not FDA cleared for healthcare use, are also gaining attention with coronavirus. The ClearMask is geared toward the deaf and hard of hearing by allowing full-face visibility and can be purchased in bulk. Individual customers are looking to handmade-goods retailer Etsy who offers high-rating fully transparent masks, as well as anti-fog clear masks.
Safe’N’Clear was founded by Anne McIntosh, who has profound deafness in both ears. She was inspired to create clear masks after undergoing an emergency c-section.
“The nurse, doctor, and even my husband were in surgical garb head to toe, including regular facemasks,” she says. “I was not able to lipread them or to partake in the conversations surrounding our daughter's birth.”
“The Communicator allows the deaf and hard-of-hearing to receive the same protection that others receive without cutting them off from visual communication,” she says.
Safe’N’Clear has increased their supply, but according to McIntosh “the demand still outpaces production.” She says they are having to limit the number of masks sent to each customer in order to reach as many as possible.
“The inability to hug, shake hands, or touch others has made the human smile even more important as we continue the need to establish rapport between providers and patients or between teachers and students,” she says.