Face masks are excluding the deaf and hard of hearing community

A line of people wearing face masks in New York City.
A line of people wearing face masks in New York City.
Image: AP/Mary Altaffer
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Face masks are spreading as a coronavirus mitigation measure, but it’s leaving out a large population: The deaf and hard of hearing.

While surgical masks have been the norm in Asian countries, they’re a new addition to Western economies fending off the spread of the deadly disease, Covid-19, caused by the novel coronavirus. Governor Andrew Cuomo, on Wednesday, March 15, mandated all New Yorkers wear a mask when going out in public starting Friday. Similar calls were heard in Germany and other countries, nevermind the low supply of masks.

Yet, the coverings are posing further challenges for the deaf and hard of hearing population of more than 450 million globally, or 5% of the world. Plus, older people increasingly experience gradual hearing loss and they’re at higher risk in battling Covid-19.

Cloth or paper masks are making it clear that pandemics initially aren’t accessible for all.

Face masks affect everyone in the deaf and hard of hearing community—deaf people who rely on sign language still need facial expressions for a full understanding of what is being communicated, and those with hearing aids or cochlear implants rely on lip-reading to better understand what is being heard. Anyone with lower hearing losses will have further difficulty with muffled speech.

Not only do they make communication during the pandemic inaccessible, they further alienate the deaf population, which can already feel left out. The facial coverings are increasingly worn by essential workers and public service employees, where communication has to be understandable: grocers, transit employees and ride-share drivers, TV reporters—and sometimes those interviewed by on-air journalists.

In more dire situations, deaf and hard of hearing individuals may have to go to the hospital or get tested. Inaccessibility in understanding people who are trying to take care of them can compound an already confusing and stressful process.

The high demand and low supply of PPE don’t make it easy to ask for greater accessibility in hospitals, where doctors and nurses are already overwhelmed in a life-threatening time. Further restrictions also don’t allow interpreters or loved ones to bolster communication in hospitals.

As more scramble to procure PPE that may not be accessible, there are alternative face masks available for health care workers.

Safe’N’Clear, produced in the United States, offers surgical masks with a see-through window panel that shows the wearer’s mouth. However, its product has been sold out for some time and is currently on backorder for mid-May.

For the wider general population, there are efforts to introduce accessible facial coverings. YouTube videos are popping up to teach people how to create their own DIY masks with clear windows.

A startup, AO Facewear, primarily focused on helping humans fend off rising pollution introduced a mask at the Consumer and Electronics Show (CES) in January 2020. The design is effectively accessible with a clear panel—but it comes with a $350 price tag.