April 9, 2021

Accessible Masks: The Difference Is Clear

Imagine going to bed one night and waking up in a world in which you can’t understand anyone. To make matters worse, you find it impossible to tell if othersTwo women wearing clear masks sit at a desk. are trying to communicate with you in the first place.  It may sound far-fetched, but this has been the reality for countless d/Deaf and hard of hearing (DHOH) individuals since mask mandates went into effect due to the pandemic.

Face coverings are an essential tool to help contain the spread of coronavirus. However, traditional masks obscure lip and facial movements, making communication difficult for people who are DHOH or who have sensory disabilities like autism. Because 93 percent of all communication is nonverbal, even individuals without hearing loss can struggle to understand each other with masks on.

For Rebecca Hull, who is Deaf, the constant struggle to communicate with others has made the most mundane tasks frustrating and exhausting.

“Think about interacting with the cashier at the grocery store,” she says. “As a Deaf person, if I don’t see the cashier’s lips moving, how am I to know they are asking me questions?”

Fortunately, Rebecca is also one of The IC’s Outreach Specialists and a graduate of the Rochester Institute of Technology/National Technical Institute for the Deaf (RIT/NTID). Thanks to her unique skillset, she was perfectly positioned to advocate for and implement an initiative to address this issue.

“Real change occurs when we take the time to educate that disability is not the problem. Instead, it is the lack of accessible or alternative resources that creates a barrier,” she notes. “The example of masks during a pandemic illustrates this point. We can provide an accessible alternative to the mainstream option.”

As Rebecca saw it, one alternative was to provide masks with clear windows to DHOH individuals or those who regularly interact with them, like teachers and health care workers. Leadership at The IC quickly approved the project and the Pikes Peak Community Foundation Emergency Relief Fund generously provided a grant to purchase two different types of masks and a number of face shields.

The response from the community was immediate and overwhelmingly positive. Over 2,000 masks and face shields were requested and distributed.

“The excitement and appreciation we felt from our community has been enormous,” says Michele Chamberlain, Independent Living Manager at The IC.  “Making a difference in our community is why we are here.  We did that with this project.”

Kimberly Kieffer has seen firsthand the difference the masks have made. A school counselor at Academy Endeavor Elementary, Kimberly says the masks have been a gamechanger for the hard of hearing students she works with. “It’s been a challenge, all school year, to find a mask that is safe, fits well enough for me to teach/converse, and allows my students to see my lips,” she observes. “These masks are being used with the population for which they are intended and very appreciated.”

These are the kinds of success stories that Rebecca hopes will lead to more awareness surrounding the need for accessibility, both now and when the pandemic is over.

“The goal of this project was to promote awareness on how we can effectively communicate without compromising safety during a pandemic,” she says. “Though we’re a year into the pandemic, this is a great time to start this conversation. Hopefully, this will encourage more doctors and nurses to utilize clear mask options to communicate with their patients long after COVID-19 cases decline.”

Although the giveaway has ended, there are a number of resources available to purchase accessible masks, including the Rafi Nova Smile Mask (reusable) and ClearMask (disposable).

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