From a heartwarming mother-daughter duo to an ambitious college student, people across the U.S. are coming up with helpful alternatives to traditional face masks.

By Renee Cherry
Updated June 29, 2020
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Now that face mask recommendations have been updated to include the general public (not just those who are showing coronavirus symptoms or taking care of people who are infected), folks are doing everything they can to help make these masks as comfortable and functional as possible, particularly for those who are deaf or have hearing loss. After all, the main function that face masks serve—covering up someone's nose and mouth—presents a big issue for people who are deaf or hard of hearing. When someone relies on lip-reading or uses facial expressions with signing, a traditional face mask creates a barrier to communicate.

That shortcoming of traditional face masks hasn't gone unnoticed, especially amid the coronavirus pandemic. Some people have even brought the topic to social media to crowdsource advice:

Over the last few months, people across the U.S. have been coming up with innovative solutions to this problem. Take Ashley Maughan, a hairstylist at The Smitten Salon in Arlington, Virginia who is hard of hearing and uses lip-reading (in addition to hearing aids) to communicate, especially at work with her clients. "When masks became mandatory in all places of business I was immediately overcome with anxiety," Maughan wrote in a recent Instagram post. "I felt stressed and dismayed at the thought of not being able to communicate with my clients."

To help, Kristin Montalbano, a friend of Maughan's boss who studied fashion merchandising at Marymount University, offered to start sewing transparent face masks for Maughan and her clients. "I did a lot of research and found some YouTube tutorials as a starting point," Montalbano told Northern Virginia Magazine in an interview. "From there it was just trial and error until I had a mask with a big enough window for lip-reading, a comfortable, secure fit to keep out the germs and something that could be easily replicated in order to make as many as possible."

"Thank you both for your acts of kindness," Maughan concluded her Instagram post, expressing gratitude to both Montalbano and her boss, Melanie St. Clair.

Writer and activist Latria Graham has also been hard at work creating transparent face masks to donate them to people who need them. "To date, we've made over 700 masks," Graham recently wrote on Instagram, sharing that she and her mom, Melinda have been putting in the hours together to design the masks.

As the number of positive COVID-19 cases begins to climb in certain parts of the U.S., including South Carolina (where Latria and Melinda live), the mother-daughter team recently launched a new project called Covering America: The Face Mask Initiative. Their goal: to help people who need clear face masks ASAP, particularly those who can't otherwise afford these masks.

"We know that not everyone has the time, money, or resources to get a face mask, and as lifelong sewers, we're doing what we can to get face masks to those that need them in order to help stop the spread," reads a form for their initiative. If you're interested in getting one of their transparent face masks for yourself or a loved one, simply fill out the mother-daughter duo's online form here and they'll take care of the rest, free of charge. (If you're interested in buying a transparent face mask from Latria and Melinda, you can do so on their Etsy shop.)

Even younger folks are contributing their efforts toward these initiatives. Eastern Kentucky University senior, Ashley Lawrence has been creating fabric face masks with a clear plastic insert that makes the wearer's mouth visible. "Paper masks with clear pieces over the mouth already exist, but like the regular surgical masks, they are in short supply during this crisis," Lawrence wrote in a GoFundMe description for the project. "So I have modified the fabric mask pattern to be suitable for those who lip read or who rely on the facial expressions used when communicating in ASL to understand meaning and intention." (Related: Should You Start Making and Wearing DIY Masks to Protect Against the Coronavirus?)

After raising over $3,000 toward the goal, Lawrence closed her fundraiser to new donations. She wrote that she plans to use the funds to cover the material and shipping costs and send out the masks free of charge to people who are part of the deaf or hard of hearing community. She also said she plans on donating any leftover money to the non-profit Hands and Voices, which supports families with kids who are deaf or hard of hearing.

Back when Lawrence first started her project, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) didn't recommend wearing face masks in public. Now that it's changed its stance, her initiative stands to impact even more people. (Related: How Fitness Helped This Woman Cope with Going Blind and Deaf)

While Lawrence's and others' masks are unique within the DIY realm, some companies have previously rolled out transparent face masks. For instance, Safe 'N' Clear offers Food and Drug Administration (FDA)-registered surgical masks.

There's also the ClearMask, which is almost completely clear and might see some use in hospital settings because of current mask shortages—even though, under normal circumstances, it's technically not FDA-approved. "Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the ClearMask is currently available for use in hospitals and by healthcare providers without objection from the FDA," a statement on the company's website reads. "The ClearMask is a face mask that may be used when FDA-cleared masks are unavailable. Per the FDA, the use of these masks in a surgical setting, or where significant exposure to liquid bodily or other hazardous fluids may be expected, is not recommended." The company markets its masks not only as a solution for deaf and hard of hearing people, but also for people who have a language barrier, child patients, and patients experiencing stress or anxiety. (BTW, none of the aforementioned masks provide nearly as much protection as N95 respirator masks, which are also in short supply.)

For the most part, face masks are treated as a one-size-fits-all deal, even when it comes to the DIY instructions that have been popping up all over the internet. Bravo to Montalbano, Lawrence, the Grahams, and everyone else who's been looking out for the deaf and hard of hearing.

The information in this story is accurate as of press time. As updates about coronavirus COVID-19 continue to evolve, it’s possible that some information and recommendations in this story have changed since initial publication. We encourage you to check in regularly with resources such as the CDC, the WHO, and your local public health department for the most up-to-date data and recommendations.

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