Face masks with windows mean more than smiles to deaf people

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In this June 3, 2020, photo, Chris LaZich, of Fleet Science Center, tries on a mask with a window with the help of Delpha Hanson, rear, in San Diego. Face coverings to curb the spread of the coronavirus are making it hard for people who read lips to communicate. That has spurred a slew of startups making masks with plastic windows to show one's mouth. The companies are getting inundated with orders from family and friends of deaf people, people helping English learners see the pronunciation of words, and even hospitals that want their patients to be able to see smiles. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

SAN DIEGO – Michael Conley felt especially isolated these past few months: A deaf man, he was prevented from reading lips by the masks people wore to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

But then he met Ingrid Helton, a costume designer who sewed him a solution – masks with plastic windows for hearing people to wear, allowing lip readers to see mouths move.

She has started a business to provide the windowed masks, and she’s not alone. A half-dozen startups are doing the same. They have been inundated with orders -- and not only from friends and family of the roughly 48 million Americans who are deaf or hard of hearing.

“You can tell so much by a facial expression, so it’s proving that it can be helpful to everybody,” Helton said.

Teachers want them for English learners struggling without being able to see native speakers pronounce words. Hospitals and businesses want them to help improve communication, and so everyone can see the smiles of their workers.

“We have retailers who say, ‘We want to protect our employees but our customers need to see their smile and put customers at ease,‘” said Dr. Anne McIntosh, a hearing-impaired doctor and founder of Safe n’ Clear in North Carolina. The company’s surgical mask with a fog-resistant window, The Communicator, was the first to be approved by the FDA.

The Communicator was developed before the pandemic to address a problem that lip readers have long faced in trying to understand masked workers in hospitals. The problem has been worsened by the pandemic; many interpreters for hearing-impaired people have been unable to go into medical facilities because of the highly contagious coronavirus.

But as masks have proliferated outside hospitals, so have the miseries of deaf people.