As It Happens

This doctor is giving out clear face masks for hearing-impaired patients

An audiologist practice in Raleigh, N.C., has equipped patients and their families with see-through masks so people with hearing-impairments can better understand wearers.

Standard face masks cover up important facial expressions and reduce voice volume

Audiologist Dr. Saranne Lentz-Barker wears a clear mask in the Raleigh, N.C., clinic where she works. Top left: clear masks designed to help people who are hearing impaired see people's mouths move when they talk. (Raleigh Hearing and Tinnitus Center)
Listen6:33

Transcript

While conducting curbside appointments, an audiologist in Raleigh, N.C., noticed a problem. Patients were struggling to hear and understand her and her colleagues because they were wearing face masks.

Now, she's working to fix that problem by equipping Raleigh Hearing and Tinnitus Center patients' families with see-through masks. 

Health officials say wearing a mask can help prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus, but as Dr. Sheri Mello told As It Happens host Carol Off, they also muffle one's voice and block important visual cues, like lip movements and facial expressions.

"Are you smiling? Are you not? Are you having a good day? It's very hard to figure out with your emotions what they are in communicating. And all that plays a huge part in communication," Mello said.

Dr. Sheri Mello, an audiologist in Raleigh, N.C., shows how a clear mask can aid people who are hearing impaired. Credit: Courtesy Dr. Sheri Mello 0:49

She added that masks also lower one's volume by about 10 decibels, or nearly a quarter.

That's why Mello's interest piqued when she saw Kentucky college student Ashley Lawrence had shared plans for see-through masks on Facebook.

"I felt like there was a huge population that was being looked over," Lawrence told NBC affiliate LEX 18.

"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."

The masks contain a clear sheet of plastic over the mouth to make more of the wearer's face visible. 

Patients and staff at an audiologist practice in Raleigh, N.C., demonstrate how an appointment starts while wearing clear masks designed to help people who are hearing impaired. Credit: Courtesy Dr. Sheri Mello 0:30

Since she doesn't sew, Mello reached out to her network of patients and their families, asking if anyone could make clear masks using materials they had on-hand.

She got 10 takers within three days. They were able to make 30 masks, enough for Mello and her colleagues to keep some and give the rest away to patients and their loved ones. 

Mello says the mask makers made an important update to the design. Instead of using elastics over the ears to hold the mask in place on one's face, they use ties that go around the back of the head. That way, the ties don't brush up and knock off the wearer's hearing aids. 

The masks have really helped her patients understand people better, she said, so she's sharing information about them widely. 

"We've had such a huge response that some people want to order 40 or 50 of them because they're teachers or people that are home health-care people. And so they want to buy it for their staff. And so we're not set up to do that," she said.

Instead, Mello and her colleagues are directing people to stores where they can purchase the devices.

"I think face coverings are going to be around for quite a bit," she said. 


Written by Justin Chandler. Interview produced by Sarah Jackson

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