Wearing a mask or facial covering has become a new reality for everyone, but for the hearing impaired, the inability to read other peoples’ lips has made communicating during the pandemic incredibly challenging. In Canada alone, the population of those who are deaf or hard of hearing tops more than three million. Some mask manufacturers have devised a clever solution: masks with transparent windows over the lips that allow anyone who is deaf or hard of hearing to be able to communicate freely. Wearing clear face covers such as masks and shields can help keep communication flowing while blocking virus transmission!
Differently-abled persons are confronted with unique challenges during this ongoing public health crisis, including equal access to health care services, social isolation, and income and employment security. In order to help support this vulnerable community, it’s important that individual citizens and the greater community take proactive measures such as wearing clear masks and shields to ensure their physical welfare.
Clear Face Covers Offer Reprieve for Those Hard of Hearing
Since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, we have witnessed the inherent need to see the smiles and facial expressions of our fellow human beings. This non-verbal means of social connection is important not only among the deaf and hard of hearing, but all people.
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For those who communicate with the hearing impaired, opaque masks present an additional risk. The individual will have to touch their face to remove the mask in order to communicate. The mask must then be put back on once the conversation has ended. This means that the wearer is more likely to touch germs on the mask. Wearing clear face covers would help improve communication and would reduce risk of transmission from fiddling with a cloth mask.
Social isolation is also of great concern for the deaf community. For the hearing impaired who live alone, the virus and the societal impacts it has created has made them more isolated than they may have been before.
And the communication difficulties aren’t just present in public settings. Consider the barriers that would exist if a hearing-impaired individual had to go to the hospital for coronavirus treatment. They would certainly face an extra level of difficulty in communicating with hospital staff.
Beyond the deaf community, wearing clear masks and shields are also beneficial for those who may feel a greater need to connect with caregivers and guardians, including children, people with dementia, the elderly, or anyone experiencing confusion, stress, or anxiety.
What Do Officials Have to Say About Clear Masks?
Officials at Health Canada have recommended an alternative approach to opaque masks. If neither the person who is deaf nor their communication partner present symptoms of coronavirus (COVID-19), either or both individuals can wear a clear face shield that completely covers their face. The longer the face shield, the better. This would allow for the deaf or hearing impaired to freely read lips and communicate while still enjoying the personal protection that the shield offers.
Speech-Language & Audiology Canada (SAC) is a national organization in Canada that represents and supports those who work with the deaf and hard of hearing, including speech-language pathologists, audiologists, and other communication health practitioners.
In early June 2020, Health Canada placed a large order of clear masks for use in Canada from Clearmask, LLC, a US-based entity. However, the order is only a temporary solution, and SAC continues to push for Canadian-made clear mask production to support the deaf community. Since the purchase was completed, SAC has been working with the Medical Devices Directorate to better understand the quality and usability of the clear face masks sold by Clearmask, LLC.
Since Health Canada published recommendations and guidelines to address the unique challenges confronting Canadians with hearing-related disabilities during the COVID-19 pandemic, SAC has come to learn more information about the product. The Medical Devices Directorate was able to review research in favor of Clearmask usage, explaining that the Clearmask is a unique piece of personal protective equipment (PPE) that serves a specific use case. It is not among one of the more common types of PPE, including respirators or common surgical masks. State agencies in both the United States and Canada are categorizing the Clearmask as a ‘face mask’ because the device does not meet the rigorous standards of a surgical mask.
The Medical Devices Directorate found that Clearmask cannot be defined as a face shield because it covers only the mouth and not the users’ eyes. It does act as a protective barrier to any aerosolized liquid, but it is not able to provide absolute protection from viral exposure because it lacks eye protection.
Additionally, because of the clear window needed to permit lip-reading, it is not able to provide the adequate filtration offered by a surgical mask. While it does offer basic protection, the Medical Devices Directorate found that Clearmask is mostly intended to support communication with the hearing-impaired in a non-infectious environment.
Nova Scotians Encourage Wearing Clear Face Coverings
The head of the Society of Deaf & Hard of Hearing Nova Scotians, Frank O’Sullivan, has stated that the widespread use of masks amid the coronavirus pandemic has made communication increasingly difficult for individuals suffering from hearing loss.
The organization, which represents deaf citizens of Nova Scotia, has made an argument for more Nova Scotians to wear clear masks to enhance their ability to communicate during this ongoing public health crisis.
While O’Sullivan supports the use of masks as a protective measure against COVID-19, he wants the community to be aware of what widespread mask use means for those living with hearing loss. He explained that life as we know it has changed drastically for everyone, and for those who are hearing impaired, the everyday challenges, barriers, and anxiety experienced in communicating with others have been compounded.
O’Sullivan’s organization estimates that nearly 60,000 Nova Scotians live with some form of hearing loss, so the challenge is more widespread than many people realize.
O’Sullivan, who is deaf himself, depends on lip-reading and verbal cues in order to communicate. He indicated that even those with some hearing abilities are also trying to adjust to the new reality because masks tend to muffle speech.
He further stated that masks obscuring the mouth has had an effect on every aspect of life, and that it has affected the deaf community not only when they’re out interacting with the public, but also in their workplace where co-workers may be required to wear masks.
O’Sullivan said, for him personally, the solution he devised has been to ask people to write things down on paper or to temporarily remove facial coverings when communicating with him. He explained that a good amount of education and awareness needs to be undertaken by the general public as the communication challenges posed by wearing masks is not currently widely understood by society at large.
A reminder that just as important as wearing a mask, is the practice of keeping your hands and frequently touched surfaces very clean. For dozens of ideas of places you might not realize get dirty, see our Amazing Cleaning Checklist.