COVID-19 Pandemic Inspires Designers to Find Solutions for People with Hearing Loss

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The public health crisis facing the entire world has meant changing many of our routines, habits, and even life choices.

The new coronavirus has challenged our ability to juggle new challenges from the need to reconnect with individual spaces to find ways to communicate effectively and respect the recommendations of the World Health Organization.

If for some of us it has been an obstacle to understanding non-verbal language or the humor behind comments made through a mask, for the community with hearing loss, the challenge has been twofold.

The inability to read lips or facial expressions is a critical impediment for millions of people around the world who have had to use other tools to get around amid an already complicated situation.

Especially in the United States, where according to the National Institutes of Health, 1 in 8 people aged 12 and older has some form of hearing problem.

According to the Washington Post, the Delaware Speech-Language-Hearing Association, a nonprofit group for speech-language pathologists and other hearing specialists, has shared instructions for creating a mask suitable for the deaf at home on its website.

With a clear vinyl panel showing the mouth, the innovation allows the hearing impaired to interpret facial cues.

This recommendation is based on a study carried out in 2017, which found that deaf and hard of hearing people are better able to communicate in noisy spaces and conditions when the speaker was wearing a transparent surgical mask. 

A representative from ClearMask, one of the few commercial transparent mask companies, told NPR‘s Yuki Noguchi that demand had “skyrocketed.

But as novelist Sara Nović warned in The Washington Post, the masks are no panacea.

“For these specialized masks to help,” she writes, “it’s not those of us who are deaf or hard of hearing who have to wear them. Instead, it’s hearing people who want to make themselves understood. To unlock the true potential of clear masks for deaf and hard-of-hearing people, she says, “We need you to do your part.”

Similarly, another company is looking for solutions to help this community cope.

As explained by Baynews9, Tyton Designs in Bradenton invented a hybrid mask and face shield to ensure the safety of children returning to school during the pandemic, through a device that is “comfortable, safe, and useful.”

“The material is light on the skin, so you’re not sweating from a hot fiber mask,” Ty Salvatore, Tyton Designs’ Owner, told the local media.

“I was born hearing impaired, so reading lips was super important growing up,” Salvatore explains. “This mask has vinyl so you can see through it, and it can be cleaned easily.”

More than 1,000 hybrid masks have been purchased for bus drivers in Pasco County Schools. 

“We just want to help our people,” says Salvatore. “The response from the community has been excellent.”