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Deaf-friendly masks allow easier communication for all

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Posted at 6:52 PM, May 26, 2020
and last updated 2020-05-26 18:53:05-04

BUFFALO, N.Y. (WKBW) — For decades, members of the deaf community have been fighting to be a part of the conversation.

“But now, because everybody’s being told you have to wear a mask, you have to protect yourself, you have to protect others. It almost throws us back in time where the community is again faced with, how do I access communication,” Jodie Chibi, Director at Deaf Access Services said.

For Andrea Russell, a member of Western New York’s deaf community, these last few months have triggered some painful childhood memories.

“Wearing masks now and seeing all these masks, it brings that back to me," she said. "It’s like their forcing me to try to accommodate and communicate with everyone else by hearing, and I can’t hear, period.”

For many people in the deaf community, lip reading is a huge part of communicating.

“That’s another form of tone of voice,” David Wantuck Community Engagement Services at Deaf Access Services adds.

The jawline and facial expressions help members of the community interpret the meaning behind signs.

“So if you can only see a tiny part of the lips or no lips, you’re still cutting out a portion of that communication,” Chibi said.

But, a potential solution is in the works. Sue Ann Barrett of Peoples Inc is teaming up with the Skilled Laborers Brigade to make deaf-friendly face masks.

“It’s a work in progress at this point,” she said.

She’s made several different prototypes. Each varying in mouth size, some coming with elastic bands, others needing to be tied around the head.

“Just to see what works best,” Chibi adds.

But these masks aren’t only for people in the deaf community. It’s for people like you and me who can hear. That way, if we run into a deaf or heard of hearing person in the grocery store, we can communicate effectively without risking our health.

“The positive outcome will be that even when COVID-19 passes and we resume what we can call normal," Chibi said. "People still will need face masks and these solutions then would be there.”