Face masks for the deaf: Covid 19's communication challenge for the hearing impaired

A transparent face mask on a mannequin in Nonthaburi, Thailand, on April 29, 2020.
A transparent face mask on a mannequin in Nonthaburi, Thailand, on April 29, 2020. © AFP / FRANCE 24

How to lip read when everyone’s face is hidden behind a mask? That is the challenge facing deaf people across the world as the Covid-19 pandemic makes face masks a part of daily life. The answer could be transparent face masks but such masks are in short supply, leading some to make their own.


Over 5 percent of the world’s population, or 466 million people, have disabling hearing loss, according to the World Health Organization, and many rely on lip-reading alongside sign language to communicate.

“In the current situation, in connection with the coronavirus, there are salespeople for example at the post office or at the pharmacy who have masks,” Céline Rettmann a hearing-impaired high school student from Brussels, Belgium, told Reuters.

“This is why it is necessary to extend the use of transparent masks to facilitate accessibility for deaf people.”

Deaf associations in several countries, including Belgium, are calling on governments to make these masks more readily available.

But for the time being, many are having to make do with homemade efforts, including at the Royal Woluwe Institute, a special-needs school in Brussels where teachers have been sewing masks that contain a transparent window to show the mouth.

“Our children need to communicate with the whole entity, all your face, the things you say, not (only) with the hands but (also) with the face,” Wendy Schellemans, a teacher at the school told Reuters.

“The emotions behind communication. So when we try to wear these ones - we made these - they could look at everything we were telling - even our emotions.”

Across the world entrepreneurs and charities have been stepping in to meet the demand for transparent masks, including in Indonesia, Thailand and Italy, where an auto-workshop that recently switched its production lines to making see-through masks says its creations have proved popular with non-deaf people too.

“Along the way, we realised that this is not only for the hard of hearing, but also for normal people who cannot see the smiles or visual expressions of the person,” owner Francesco Tortorelli told AFP.

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