Arizona advocates for the deaf are seeking clear, protective face masks

May 15, 2020, 5:55 AM | Updated: 1:51 pm
(Facebook Photo/ClearMask)...
(Facebook Photo/ClearMask)
(Facebook Photo/ClearMask)

PHOENIX — The proliferation of face masks to reduce the spread of coronavirus is resulting in communication difficulties for the hearing-impaired

For the more than 1.1 million Arizonans who are Deaf or hard of hearing, face masks have made it almost impossible to communicate with those who aren’t familiar with American Sign language.

“Wearing a mask without being able to read their lips is very, very difficult,” Executive Director of the Arizona Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Sherri Collins said.

“Not only that, we rely on the facial expressions and you can’t see the whole face.

“We understand that everyone wants to be protected, including our community, but it really creates a barrier when you’re doing things like shopping.”

She says she’ll often rely on gestures or ask people to write down messages or type them out on their phone, but that doesn’t always suffice.

That’s why the commission is seeking clear, adaptive masks.

Such masks have been difficult to acquire.

“It’s a national problem,” Sherri insisted. “It’s not just here in Arizona, it’s a nationwide concern.”

But if you can’t find them, why not make them?

While many seamstresses and tailors have started sewing together reusable, fabric masks, clear masks are a bit more complicated.

“The thing that you have to think about is, can you breathe through the mask and make sure it doesn’t fog up?” Collins said.

“Also, can you clean the clear part with [disinfectant]?”

The Arizona Commission of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing reached out to the Arizona State University and the University of Arizona’s engineering departments hoping to find students and experts who may be able to allocate coronavirus grant funding to developing these masks.

Collins said they still haven’t heard back from either university so they’re asking any Arizonan who can, to help.

“Are there any professional engineering experts that would consider developing a clear mask that’s protective and doesn’t have any holes?” Collins asked.

She explained that masks are just one part of the overall communication breakdown happening between those with and without a hearing disability.

“It’s not just clear masks access, it’s access to information,” Collins said.

She said many videos and livestreams about breaking news related to the pandemic are not available in American Sign Language or even with closed captioning.

So whether it’s being willing to point in public, adding captions to a video, or being able to build an adaptive mask, the Arizona Commission for Deaf and Hard of Hearing is asking those who can hear to do what they can to break down communication barriers where they can.

“Another concern that I have is that [applying and checking on unemployment claims] I understand you often have to call,” she said. “Most likely you’ll get an answering machine, then you go through options you have to press.”

“That is a barrier right there for people with hearing loss because the options are not always clear. It’s very frustrating.”

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Arizona advocates for the deaf are seeking clear, protective face masks