Across the UK, at least 11 million people have some level of deafness. Each and every one of these individuals might now find life harder due to the use of masks and other facial coverings.
And it is not just people with deafness who will be struggling: the Royal College of Speech & Language Therapists has highlighted the potential impact of masks on others with communication challenge, including people with aphasia, autism, with dementia or with learning disability.
Let’s also not forget that even people with good hearing and no communication challenges make use of lipreading and facial expressions to communicate as shown by research undertaken in the past. Visual clues are important for assisting the way we interact with others.
The problem with masks
- Masks cover the mouth and face and by doing so prevent people from lipreading or from using (quite often subconsciously) mouth shape and facial expression to assist in accurately hearing and following what is being said.
- Masks muffle the sound of voices, not just reducing the volume but, even more importantly, reducing the clarity, so words are harder to properly hear and understand.
- Masks also create problems for those who use British Sign Language (BSL) as oppose to listening to the spoken voice as BSL relies heavily on facial expression used in combination with hand gestures and movements and body language.
- Masks prevent facial expressions being seen and so we cannot so easily build rapport or demonstrate empathy, things that are particularly important when we are stressed or unwell or in an unfamiliar or noisy environment.
The clear panel solution
A clear panel constructed into the mask, or a full transparent face shield, makes it possible to see the mouth or the full face. This can be a significant benefit. It is important, however, that the mask or shield does not fog up, reflect light or block sound (these things are proving an issue some products available).
So what’s available?
We cannot offer a view on the quality or efficacy of any of the masks listed below, but we are pleased to share the details so you can see the sorts of things available. You might also wish to watch this 50-sec video from the BBC on the right way to wear a face covering.
Update 15 July
Crowd-funded CLIU mask from Italy
This mask from a team in Italy is still at the concept stage. It is being crowd-funded so if you like the look of the product, you can support it by making a pre-order. The development team say that it will be a “safe, elegant and light” solution. Find out more [external link].
Robot technology mask from Japan
C-FACE from Donut Robotics in Tokyo is said to be the world’s first “smart mask that works with smartphones”. It lights up when someone speaks – but potentially far more usefully, it converts what the speaker is saying directly into text that can be displayed on a digital screen. As well as transcribing speech, it can translate from one spoken language to another. Find out more [external link].
Crowd-funded Leaf mask from Michigan, USA
This is another product in development. It is made of a soft silicone material and comes in a range of models. It has so far raised a mind-boggling £2.7 million in crowdfunding. It claims not only to be highly safe, but to have innovative and helpful features, including filters, ventilation fans, anti-fog coating and a UVC light. Find out more [external link]
Approved for use in UK health and care settings
This is the mask that has recently been approved for use by the NHS and other care providers. New guidance is encouraging use of these clear masks to assist communication.
It comes from the USA and is called ‘ClearMask’. Read more [this is a link to an external site]
Update 13 July
Smile mask raises money for charity
Todmoorden Cancer Research Group is making masks from donated fabric. 100% of the profit goes to Cancer Research. Find out more [external link].
Family-made Friendly Face Mask
This is the first lip-reading face mask to become widely available in the UK and across the globe. It is made in different sizes to fit different faces. Find out more [external link].
Update 3 July 2020:
New simple face shield
FLATSHIELD® utilises lightweight and discreet materials for a comfortable experience. It has a pop-up headband to create the gap required between the device and face. It is anti-fog. Read more here [this is a link to external site]
Update 11 June 2020:
New type of transparent mask from HmCare
Swiss scientists have developed what they say is a “fully transparent surgical mask that filters out germs” whilst also allowing facial expressions to be seen. It is expected to be available in summer of 2021. Read more here [this is a link to an external site].
UK innovated full face shield
Shropshire-based firm Plastic-IT have developed a face shield by working in consultation with the infection control department at their local NHS Trust. The mask is lightweight and comes with a flat surface over the eyes to give good vision and make it comfortable for glasses wearers. It doesn’t cover the ears so is suitable for hearing aid users. Read more here [this is a link to an external site]
Update 16 May
Homemade by a friend
Here’s a mask that was profiled in the Gateshead Chronicle along with a lovely story about how it was created by a woman for her friend who is an English/British Sign Language interpreter. They seem to have quickly recognised the importance of faces being visible to permit communication. Read more here [this is a link to an external site].
Created by a Covid-19 support group
This clear-panel mask was featured in the Salisbury Journal. Once again, there is a lovely story behind its origins, which lie in a Facebook request for clear-panel masks being spotted by a member of the Salisbury Makers Hub, a group set up to produce items to support Covid-19, Read more [this is a link to an external site]
Created in Scotland
Edinburgh startup, Breathe Easy, is producing hundreds of re-usable masks with clear panels, having trialled the first prototypes in early April. Read more [this is a link to an external site]
The student start-up
Here’s a mask that has been widely seen across social media. It was made by a student in the USA who seems to have quickly spotted the need for masks that would allow people to see mouths and faces. Read more [this is a link to an external site]
The face shield
Also from the USA is this mask called ‘ClearMask’. It claims to be the first transparent mask with full-face visibility. It has patent-pending design and is said to provide an effective and anti-fogging shield. Read more [this is a link to an external site]
ZVerse full-face shield
This shield has been created by an American company called ZVerse. It is one of a number of styles and designs that rest around the neck and swing up or down in front of the face. Read more [this is a link to an external site]
A mask in hot demand
A further USA product is this one known as The Communicator Mask, which was designed for use in operating rooms. Demand appears to have outstripped supply and the company producing them is not currently taking any more orders. Read more [this is a link to an external site]
Make your own mask with clear panel for lipreading
If you want to make your own mask, you will find a pattern on the website for USA charity in Seattle, Hearing, Speech & Deaf Centre [link to external site].
Video with instructions for creating your own