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Smile Masks Help Deaf And Hard Of Hearing Communicate While Reducing COVID-19 Transmission

Smile Mask co-designer Olivia Gampel wearing a clear mask. (Courtesy of Rafi Nova)
Smile Mask co-designer Olivia Gampel wearing a clear mask. (Courtesy of Rafi Nova)

The science is clear: Wearing non-surgical cloth masks that securely cover the nose and mouth prevents the transmission of coronavirus. And while medical experts agree that few conditions preclude wearing them, masks can cause significant problems for those with deafness or hearing deficits.

The issue stems from the inability to see mouth movements and facial expressions underneath the mask — both of which can be key to communication.

Now, a number of companies are selling clear masks that cover the mouth area with clear plastic, leaving the mouth fully visible.The Rafi Nova company, which sold handbags and accessories before the pandemic hit, calls theirs the Smile Mask.

When demand for masks soared in late March, company founder Marissa Goldstein says she and her husband had just launched their handbag company. But no one was buying, so the company shifted their production lines to make masks for frontline workers. 

“We had no intention of selling them, and then people were begging us to sell them,” she says. “And so we put them up on our website, and it just grew from there. But our first intention was really to just help the community.”

The masks have gained a seal of approval from several universities as safe and effective, Goldstein says. If properly constructed, they might be even saferthan traditional cloth masks because durable, synthetic materials like plastics can provide a strong barrier to droplet dispersal, according to Dr. David Aronoff at Vanderbilt University.

Even people who aren’t hard of hearing might find it difficult to communicate while wearing masks because you can’t see facial expressions, says speech-language pathologist Olivia Gampel.

“Speech sounds are dampened by both a mask’s fabric and by distance, which makes it really difficult to communicate effectively during this time of social distance,” she says. “And as well, many members of the deaf and hard of hearing communities rely on lip reading to aid in their understanding of a conversation.”

The Smile Mask is also designed with adjustable ear loops or a tie behind, so people with hearing aids or cochlear implants can easily pull it on and off, Gampel says. The company also offers an anti-fogging solution to prevent condensation from building up inside the mask.

Gampel says children who are learning how to comprehend speech and emotions could also benefit from wearing these masks.

“Language comprehension relies not just on the words that we say, but how we say it,” she says. “Children look at our eyes, our lip movements and cheeks to all aid in this comprehension.”

Even if you don’t personally know someone who is deaf or hard of hearing, Gampel says the Smile Mask can prepare you for daily encounters with people who have an extra hard time communicating when almost everyone is wearing face covering. 

“These masks aren’t just for the actual members of the deaf and hard of hearing communities, but they’re for everybody around them as well,” she says. “It’s really important if you’re at a grocery store, you never know if you’ll encounter somebody who relies solely on lip reading to communicate.”


Karyn Miller-Medzon produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Peter O’Dowd. Samantha Raphelson adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.