Nova Scotia

Why some Nova Scotians want people to wear clear masks

The head of a group that represents deaf Nova Scotians is making the pitch for more people to wear clear masks as their ability to communicate has become more challenging in the last four months during COVID-19.

For people with hearing loss, 'everyday communication challenges, barriers and stresses have been compounded'

Frank O'Sullivan, executive director of the Society of Deaf and Hard of Hearing Nova Scotians, says the widespread use of masks amid COVID-19 has made communication more difficult for people with hearing loss. (Submitted by Frank O'Sullivan)

The head of a group that represents deaf Nova Scotians is making the pitch for more people to wear clear masks as their ability to communicate has become more challenging in the last four months during COVID-19.

Frank O'Sullivan, the executive director of the Society of Deaf and Hard of Hearing Nova Scotians, said they fully support the widespread use of masks to protect people from COVID-19, but he wants people to be aware of what that means for those with hearing loss.

"Obviously life has changed for everyone," he wrote in an email to CBC News. "For people who are deaf or hard of hearing the everyday communication challenges, barriers and stresses have been compounded."

The society estimates there are more than 58,000 Nova Scotians with hearing loss, so the issue is more widespread than people realize.

CBC News asked two experts what's lost from the human experience when one of our biggest tools of communication is eclipsed and muffled by cloth. 5:30

O'Sullivan, who is deaf, depends on facial expressions and lip-reading. He said those with some hearing are also trying to adjust because masks muffle speech.

"It has impacted every aspect of life," he said. "Not only when using public and private services, but also for deaf and hard of hearing in their workplace where their co-workers are required to wear masks or if they have to deal with the public who wear masks."

O'Sullivan said his solution so far is to ask people to write things down or temporarily remove their masks when speaking with him.

Long term, he'd like to see more people wearing masks with a clear shield, but they're not easy to come by.

Marie MacMullin designed this mask to show not only the lips, but also the facial expressions of the people who are wearing it. (Formal Tailoring/Facebook)

Marie MacMullin, who owns Formal Tailoring in Hammonds Plains, N.S., realized she should start offering that option when speaking with some customers who are speech pathologists.

"That's when I started doing some research online," MacMullin said. She found designs that just had plastic over the lips, but decided to make modifications.

"I know when people are lip-reading, they also rely on expressions from people, so the whole idea is to see the whole face."

Marie MacMullin wears one of her clear plastic masks. (Formal Tailoring/Facebook)

She came up with the idea for See My Smile, a mask with an entirely clear front, but a fabric edge that goes over the nose. MacMullin also had to keep safety in mind, so the plastic isn't suffocating.

"It cones out of the face so it's not directly on where the nose and the mouth is," she said. "When I put it on, I didn't feel like I was suffocating at all."

The other challenge she faced was the plastic fogging up like glasses. She recommends customers clean it with soap or shaving cream.

Marie MacMullin estimates she's made a few hundred clear masks, but says all-fabric ones are far more popular. (Formal Tailoring/Facebook)

While O'Sullivan would like the masks to become mainstream, MacMullin said they've been slow to catch on. She sells them for $15 and estimates she's made several hundred.

"We've been shipping them out to Cape Breton, we shipped a lot out to New Brunswick, we sent some to Quebec," she said.

O'Sullivan said if masks do become mandatory in Nova Scotia, he hopes people have patience, and consider that some people will have difficulty communicating.

"The communication challenges posed by masks is currently not widely understood in society in general so a lot of education and awareness needs to be undertaken," he said.

In an email, provincial spokesperson Marla MacInnis said public health has no concerns about the effectiveness of these types of masks.

"We recognize masks can pose challenges to some people," the email said. "We also encourage businesses to have accommodations for customers who either cannot wear a mask or cannot communicate if the staff person is wearing a mask."

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