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Student Designs Coronavirus Face Masks For Deaf And Hard Of Hearing People

HuffPost UK logo HuffPost UK 03/04/2020 Josie Harvey
a red white and blue: Still life of a white face mask on red background © the_burtons via Getty Images Still life of a white face mask on red background

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Interpreting medical information during the coronavirus pandemic is stressful for anyone, but this is heightened for the deaf and hard of hearing (DHH) community. One 21-year-old in America has come up with a solution, and she’s “overwhelmed” with the response so far.

Ashley Lawrence, a student at Eastern Kentucky University who studies education for people who are Deaf or hard of hearing, noticed that since so much of the population now are opting to wear protective face masks, those in the community who rely on lip reading are struggling to access critical information. So she got productive with all the extra time she’s now spending at home due to the outbreak.

“I felt like there was a huge population that was being looked over,” Lawrence told local news station LEX18. “We’re all panicking right now and so a lot of people are just not being thought of. So I felt like it was very important that, even at a time like this, people need to have that communication.”

Lawrence and her mom set to work sewing masks using plastic fabric and bed sheets, experimenting with various attachments for people who use cochlear implants and hearing aids and can’t wrap mask straps around their ears.

With personal protective equipment in short supply around the country, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has advised for weeks that masks should be preserved for medical professionals, people who are sick and those caring for them. On Thursday, officials said they will soon likely issue new guidance that everyone should wear a cloth mask or facial covering in public settings. In the UK, the wearing of face masks by healthy people has not been recommended by the government, despite the US government’s shift.

On a GoFundMe page titled, “DHH Mask Project”, Lawrence said she would distribute her specialised masks for free to those who request them so they can provide them to their doctors if they need medical attention.

“Those who rely on lip reading or ASL [American Sign Language] to communicate are often cut off from their source of communication when doctors and nurses don surgical masks,” she wrote.

In an update on Thursday, Lawrence said they were no longer accepting donations as they had met their goal, saying she was “completely overwhelmed” by the response.

For anyone who wants a mask, she suggested emailing dhhmaskproject@gmail.com. However, she noted they are struggling to meet the high demand.

And for those who want to contribute face masks to their own community, Lawrence said she would post a YouTube tutorial soon and would be willing to email the sewing pattern upon request.

Brett Casey, CEO of Deaf Services and the Deaf Society in Australia, said the coronavirus pandemic highlighted the “lack of information for and considerations of the deaf and hard of hearing community during times of crisis.”

“The invention of see-through face masks is a positive step towards acknowledging the unique needs of deaf and hard of hearing people,” Casey, who is Deaf, wrote in an email to HuffPost.

He said for people in the DHH community, who already experience reduced access to information about the virus in general, meetings with medical personnel can be very stressful.

The Deaf Society advocates for sign language interpreters to be present for any interactions between DHH people and medical personnel, but Casey said these face masks could add further dimension to these interactions by allowing clients to see medical staff’s facial expressions and read their lips.

“Should they meet all local medical standards, we hope to see these masks, or similar, adopted by medical or essential services personnel and integrated into approved practices to reduce the onus on the Deaf community to bring them to appointments in an attempt to receive equal access to critical information,” Casey said.

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