Before the COVID-19 pandemic, seeing someone’s smile wasn’t a rarity. But as wearing face masks have become an everyday part of our lives over the past year, seeing a person’s smile, or any of their facial expressions, in a public setting has become less and less frequent.
For people with hearing loss, this inability to see someone’s mouth or full facial expression can make it difficult to communicate with others.
“Hearing loss is one of the most prevalent disabilities in the U.S. and often develops gradually, over time. Some people with hearing loss didn't even realize how much they depended on seeing faces for communication until we all started covering up," says Kevin Irvine, senior talent acquisition consultant for individuals with disabilities and facilitator of the Disabilities Employee Resource Group at Rush University Medical Center.
Finding a solution
Realizing that wearing a mask can make communication harder for patients, staff and students, Irvine — along with a group of Medical Center employees — set out to find a solution.
The solution: transparent face masks created by ClearMasks LLC.
“ClearMasks” are the first fully transparent masks approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The ClearMask company was co-founded by a John Hopkins University graduate, Allyssa Dittmar, who is deaf, after she went into surgery while being unable to read lips or see the facial expressions of her medical team.
These masks now are available to accommodate those who need it at the Medical Center. Patients and visitors with hearing loss can request that staff wear transparent masks for their appointment in most inpatient and outpatient settings.
A positive impact
The use of transparent face masks already has eased some communication difficulties for Rush staff.
“Considering that hearing loss isn’t ‘visible’ to the eye, most people wearing cloth-masks have no idea that I’m a deaf lipreader, and am unable to lipread,” explains Sophie Seypura, clinical research assistant, All of Us Research Program, Rush University Medical Center. With no visual cues to see that a masked-person is speaking to me, someone like myself often has no idea that they’re missing anything, which has ultimately resulted in confusion and frustration for both parties.”
“As a Rush employee with hearing loss, I did not know how much I relied on reading lips to fill sound gaps until everyone was wearing masks. It gets a bit frustrating to have a conversation with me, as I have to keep saying, 'Could you repeat that?'" says Carlos Olvera, manager of interpreter services. (Olvera also is co-chair of Rush’s ADA Task Force committee, which works to make the Rush campus more accommodating and to implement programs and services for people with disabilities.)
“It got to the point that I let them talk and guessed what some of the information was being said. Having the masks available for my co-workers will help me understand everything they are telling me with little interruptions from me asking them to repeat."
The use of transparent masks also is making an impact at Rush’s Laurance Armour Day School (LADS). While the LADS teachers have done an amazing job in their teacher/child interactions during the pandemic, they noticed the masks were impeding younger students from being able to look at the teachers' mouths for auditory and facial cues.
“In just one week (of using transparent face masks), during morning drop-off, I have seen an increase in eye contact and social interactions with the infants and toddlers, as well as all the children when I greet them every morning with a smile, which is very exciting," says Maria Walker, director of LADS. “Having the clear mask will help our younger children develop their communication and social skills."
Providing comfort to patients
Transparent masks also will have a positive impact on patients at the Medical Center campus. Not being able to read facial expressions or read lips can make the difference between a comfortable hospital stay and a harrowing one for individuals with hearing loss.
Kruti Shah, PharmD, a pharmacist with the Medical Center who has hearing loss, saw the need for a transparent mask option both as an employee and also after giving birth during the pandemic.
"Having communication setbacks due to a simple thing such as a mask is extremely frustrating and seems unfair. The need for a mask will not end anytime soon"; says Shah. “My communication at work was only based on the sound I perceived, which due to social distancing, was very soft and due to the mask, was very muffled. I found myself struggling to even comprehend a single sentence or a question from a colleague, let alone the back and forth conversation that was required to solve a problem.”
Shah explained that during her pregnancy, face masks became a hurdle, forcing her to rely on others to communicate.
“During labor and delivery at Rush, I had to ask the OB team to be patient with me, to talk while sitting or standing next to me, to allow me to ask questions and to repeat instructions,” she says. “As someone who is a professional, and values independence, I had to rely on my husband to communicate.”
The transparent masks also will allow patients to read lips, making it less likely that they will misinterpret important medical information given to them by their providers. For patients who depend on sign language interpreters for effective communication, transparent masks will aid in communicating tone and emotion, which depends on facial expressions paired with signs.
“Having a clear mask which enables me to read lips and facial expression is important to help me and others with hearing loss feel included, cared for, and confident in ourselves and in the health care system,” says Shah.
Accessibility is key
Rush University Medical Center is always looking for new ways to provide accessibility to ensure a comfortable and positive hospital environment for all. Providing transparent masks for staff, patients and students is one more way Rush can provide a positive experience for anyone who steps on the Medical Center’s campus.
“To now have ClearMasks available at Rush, it has given me an overwhelming amount of relief, for the first time in a long time,” says Seypura. “I not only feel so much gratitude towards Rush’s commitment to inclusivity and accessibility, I feel incredibly optimistic for the opportunities the ClearMasks will provide as far as communication.”
Providing transparent masks for staff, patients and students is one more way Rush can provide a positive experience for anyone who steps on the Medical Center’s campus. The use of ClearMasks has the ability to provide a comforting experience that could otherwise end up stressful and at times, even scary, while also reducing the chances of misinterpreting important medical information.
“A transparent mask is a perfect example of why universal design is so impactful,” says Irvine. “Created primarily to help deaf and hard of hearing people, it benefits many others.”
Learn more about disability inclusion initiatives at Rush, including the Disabilities Employee Resource Group here.