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Face masks introduce new challenge for deaf community

CONROE, Texas – Face masks are presenting an obstacle for the deaf and hard of hearing. They're unable to read the lips of those wearing them.

Patricia in Conroe was born deaf. Sign language is her primary source of communication and before the coronavirus pandemic, she said people were accommodating while running errands to help her read lips. Now she feels the deaf are not being given the exception to the rule she thinks they need.

“It’s just very hard to communicate back and forth. I try to have my pen and paper ready but it just scares the hearing community because they have never experienced how to communicate with deaf people and these new masks just make it harder to communicate with the hearing world,” Patricia said.

The stakes are especially high in medical settings. Imagine going into surgery unable to hear. People who wear hearing aids have to remove them before an operation and everyone in the room is wearing masks.

Melissa Parker, who wears hearing aids, faced this frustration when removing them before surgery and being unable to lip-read mask-wearing health care workers.

"I would not really understand any verbal questions or communication," Parker said.

Spurred by her own need, she began sourcing clear masks to help future patients, unaware that volunteers were making the first prototypes for her own operation.

“When my surgical nurse came to get me she was wearing the mask, I was absolutely blown away, I really was almost moved to tears,” Parker said.

Her company, Novant, has begun to produce more of these masks.

In Houston, healthcare workers said they’re tough to buy in bulk and more costly than surgical masks so they are not widely used.

However, they are available for individual purchase online, like on Etsy.

Patricia said if more people had these, it would help ensure clear communication at a critical time.

“It’s hard to find them and it’s hard to ask everyone to have that just for the deaf community but that is a really nice asset,” she said. “That is something that is up and coming that attempts to meet the needs of the deaf community.”