When I was five years old, I was diagnosed with profound, progressive hearing loss in both ears, kicking off years of speech therapy and audiology appointments. One of my least favorite parts of my regular hearing tests was when the audiologist would cover their mouth before reciting several sentences that I then had to repeat back. My hearing loss was so serious that, without the ability to rely on lip-reading, I could barely manage to get one word right. It was always an incredibly frustrating exercise, but luckily it was just that: an exercise. I was never going to be expected to communicate without lip-reading.
Fast-forward about 20 years or so and here I am, standing outside my apartment building, struggling to determine if the food the delivery guy is holding is in fact mine because I can’t see his lips through his face mask. After I explain to him that I am deaf but acknowledge that we should keep our masks on, I begin a game of 20 questions: Is it from the restaurant we ordered from? Is this the name the order is under? The phone number? I can’t understand what he needs from me. In the end, my partner comes outside to help (it is our food and the magic word that enables its release to us, he explains to me later, is our apartment number).
When COVID-19 hit the United States earlier in the year, I — like most people — assumed things would return to normal fairly quickly. Months later, I’ve come to terms with the fact that face masks are a part of daily life for the foreseeable future. I’m fortunate in many ways: I already work from home and I have a hearing partner who has taken over all of the grocery shopping and errand-running. But occasionally I will be thrown into a situation like the one I described and suddenly feel like I’ve been transported to a foreign country where I’m expected to understand the language, but don’t.
I’m far from the only one struggling right now. It wasn’t difficult to gather similar stories. Elana Powell wears a hearing aid and a cochlear implant and still struggles to communicate in masked situations at work. She is grateful to be provided with clear face masks in her current job, but discovered that they tend to fog up easily.
“It’s been a difficult internal struggle because I’ve always been one to stand up for myself, but at the same time, of course, I understand why masks are imperative at this time,” says Powell.
This is a common refrain many of us have raised during this time: the acknowledgement that, despite the difficulty it creates for them, they understand the need for face masks and don’t want to discourage others from using them.
“I want to wear a mask to help myself and others,” says Katie Sawyer, a deaf woman in the U.K., “I think the idea of [clear masks] is great as it really is so isolating seeing peoples’ mouths covered but this is a good compromise as we don’t want to endanger our health or safety of others by not wearing masks or having others remove their masks to talk to us.”
It’s not just the Deaf and hard of hearing community who can benefit from clear masks. Nathan Tamar Pautz, who also wears hearing aids, explains that some trans people are being misgendered when they go out in a face mask.
“I am non-binary and my only relief during this pandemic has been to obsessively search for a better mask,” they say. “Otherwise, I don't even want to go out in public. I have spent $350 on different ones.”
The benefits of clear face masks for the Deaf and hard of hearing community are obvious, but unfortunately, their efficacy against the spread of viruses is less certain.
Michael Chang, an assistant professor of infectious diseases at McGovern Medical School at UTHealth in Houston, notes the lack of significant clinical data in terms of this type of face mask. That being said, he does think clear face masks are a good option — with a few caveats. “If a clear plastic mask fits well, and the seam between the plastic section and the cloth section is tight, and the cloth part is multi-layered and tightly woven, I certainly don’t think the clear plastic masks would be worse and may even perform better at preventing the spread of droplets and aerosols [than other face coverings],” he says.
Neha Nanda, medical director of infection prevention and antimicrobial stewardship for Keck Medicine of USC, recommends wearing a face shield in conjunction with a clear face mask. “Three-layered cotton face masks are ideal,” she says. “However, in situations when cloth face masks cannot be worn, clear masks with the addition of a face shield can be worn.” Nanda cautions against using a face shield on its own; you should always have a mask on underneath the shield.
Allure also spoke to Cassandra M. Pierre, a physician specializing in infectious diseases and the medical director of public health programs at Boston Medical Center, who has hands-on experience with a variety of clear face masks. Pierre reiterates the importance of a snug, gap-free fit on all sides and recommends cleaning all plastic components after every use.
Pierre cautions against the type of clear homemade mask that you may find in an Etsy shop due to the potential for poor fit, lack of breathability, and fogging. Instead, she noted that the American Sign Language team at Boston Medical Center uses the Safe'N'Clear Communicator mask, and cited the Humanity Shield as another alternative.
In a perfect world, clear face masks would be the norm in public spaces. On an individual basis, however, if you can’t afford to switch to one, that’s OK. There are plenty of additional solutions for communicating with the Deaf and hard of hearing during the pandemic. The National Association of the Deaf (NAD) offers a comprehensive list of resources and best practices for communication on its website that includes solutions such as writing on paper, typing on your phone, and using a speech-to-text app such as Ava or Google Live Transcribe.
There has also never been a better time to learn some basic sign language. Even knowing the alphabet goes a long way because then you can finger-spell any word when you need to get brief messages across.
Finally, Davin Searls, the public relations director of Communication Service for the Deaf, Inc. has a piece of advice that everyone can easily follow. “Regardless of what mask you are using, empathy, patience, and awareness go a long way!” says Searls. “Pandemic or no pandemic, communication is a two-way street.”
As more technological advances are made, clear face masks should become the universal standard. Until that happens, people like myself are going to be forced to get creative when it comes to safely communicating during the pandemic. Help us out in any way you can, but please remember: mask up.
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