Eastern Kentucky University senior, Ashley Lawrence came up with a helpful alternative to the traditional face masks everyone's been sewing.

By Renee Cherry
April 06, 2020
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It's official: 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.

But the main function that face masks serve–covering up someone's nose and mouth–presents an issue for those 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 brought the topic to Twitter:

One college student has been hard at work on a solution. 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 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 Lawrence 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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