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Clear Face Masks Help Hear-Impaired Communicate During Pandemic

Volunteers with the DeLand Lions Club are making see-through face masks to help the hearing-impaired communicate during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Volunteers with the DeLand Lions Club are making see-through face masks to help the hearing-impaired communicate during the COVID-19 pandemic.

As coronavirus cases surge in Florida, businesses are responding by requiring face masks, creating a problem for hearing-impaired people who rely on lip-reading to communicate.

Volunteers with the DeLand Lions Club have come up with a solution: they’re making see-through face masks.

DeLand Lions member Dennis Dulniak got the idea from a story he saw on WFTV-TV in Orlando.

Dulniak worked with a fellow Lion to modify a standard mask print, adding a fog-proof window of clear plastic over the mouth.

Soon, a team of four seamstresses were making the masks by the hundreds to pass out for free.

“I have orders and will have sent out 618 in the first five weeks we’ve been doing this. That’s a lot,” Dulniak said.

Dulniak said he’s been amazed  by the number of people reaching out and asking for the masks, as well as the reasons for wanting them. He said he already had orders from special education departments at public schools in Central Florida.

“It’s not just the deaf and hearing-impaired,” he said. “It is the schools. It is the hospices.”

Jocie Dagenais, 12, who is deaf, inspired Dulniak to develop the masks after she was interviewed on WFTV.  Before she received her cochlear implants, she relied heavily on lip-reading for communication.

“I was probably missing about 60 to 75 percent of every sentence and so it was really hard,” she said.

Dagenais underwent her implant surgery during the pandemic. The doctors and nurses were all wearing facial coverings, which made it hard for her to understand what was going on.

“If they knew that I wasn’t catching on, they would sometimes pull down their masks so I could see their lips real quick and then they’ll pull it back up,” she said. “Because normally there’s only like one person in the room at a time, other than my parents. But it was still a little scary, especially at like the reception and stuff.”

Dagenais’ mom, Katie Mitzner, said that’s where the see-through masks come in. They help Jocie lip-read and see people’s facial expressions.

However, she said they’re not fail-proof.

“So, understand if people ask you to repeat something, a lot of people may be hard of hearing, might be senior citizens who’ve had just progressive hearing loss because of age. And there’s a lot of people out there who just have a hard time with the muffled and the mouth covered,” Mitzer said.

DeLand Lions president and Daytona State College professor Wendy Wilson, who is blind, said more needs to be done to help people with disabilities during the pandemic.

“Yes, we need more interpreters, we need to make it less expensive,” Wilson said

But, she said, innovations such as the see-through face masks are a step in the right direction.

“Again, it’s all about education,” she said. “People don’t understand people with disabilities until they’re walking in our shoes.”

Wilson said they recently ordered enough plastic to make 14,000 more face masks. She said they’re going to The Villages this week to find more sowers.

In the meantime, middle-schooler Jocie said if you can’t write down what you’re trying to say, here are some tips to communicate with someone who has hearing loss.

“If you are talking with them, make sure that you’re visible,” she said. “And if you do have a mask, maybe if you had a clear one, they could see your lips. And if you do know sign language, I’m pretty sure they would really appreciate it.”

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