Wearing one that covers your mouth can make lip-reading impossible and hinder the 12 million people in the UK who rely on it
The coronavirus pandemic has meant that face masks and coverings have become part of daily life. The UK government and the World Health Organisation (WHO) have both advised wearing face coverings in a bid to reduce the infection transmission of Covid-19.
They are now compulsory in England on public transport, in taxis, supermarkets, indoor shopping centres, banks, post offices, travel hubs and shops, as well as in the indoor settings where you’re likely to come into contact with people you don’t normally meet, including cinemas, museums, galleries and places of worship.
If you don’t wear one, you can be fined £200, apart from people with medical conditions, children under 11 and anyone who has a disability meaning they are not able to use one.
In Scotland, it is compulsory to wear one in shops and on public transport – except for people with certain medical conditions and children under five. Secondary school students in Scotland and Northern Ireland are also obliged to wear a face covering in corridors, communal areas and on buses, while masks are only compulsory in schools where local lockdown measures are imposed in England.
Face coverings are also mandatory on public transport in Wales, including in taxis. The Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland have also imposed the same rules for public transport and indoor settings such as shops, cinemas and theatres.
But what’s not being talked about is the problems that covering your mouth can cause for deaf people and those who have hearing problems and communicate through lip-reading. This has a detrimental affect on the 12 million people in the UK who are deaf or have hearing loss.
Transparent face masks have also slowly started becoming available to help prevent this issue, though they are not yet as widely-accessible as other face coverings we are all buying or making at home.
Of course this is a problem within hospitals too, where NHS staff will be wearing medical face masks, but patients with hearing problems will struggle to communicate. To combat this a Swiss startup company, Hmcare, has begun developing transparent – and importantly, breathable and won’t fog up – surgical face masks, called the HelloMask, which recently secured £820,000 in funding.
These are only available for hospital staff, though, and at the moment the only masks for the public are available from independent sellers on sites like Etsy. Although change is coming.
Nine UK charities; National Deaf Children’s Society, Action on Hearing Loss, Royal Association for Deaf people, Action Deafness, British Deaf Association, Sign Health, British Association of Teachers of the Deaf, Sense and the UK Council on Deafness, are also rallying together to encourage Public Health England and NHS England to commission transparent face masks that will stop those with hearing loss or total deafness feeling isolated.
Ahead we’ve found transparent face masks you can buy online and how to communicate effectively with those who are deaf or hard of hearing. We’ve also covered everything you need to know about when and where to use face coverings, where to buy them from to how to wash one in our face mask buying guide.
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The difficulties those with hearing loss face
Roger Wicks, director of campaigns and policy at London-based charity, Action on Hearing Loss, told The Independent: “Many people who are deaf or have hearing loss rely heavily on visual cues for effective communication including facial expressions and lip-reading.
“Being able to see lip patterns and facial expressions are also vital for those who communicate through British Sign Language. Words which sound similar but have different meanings become very difficult to distinguish and face coverings are a big barrier to this.”
Wicks revealed that Action on Hearing Loss has successfully been working with the Department for Transport to call on more guidance for exemptions to wearing face masks while on public transports. When the government unveiled the new rules for mandatory face mask-wearing, there were exemptions for those under the age of 11 and people with disabilities or breathing problems, or anyone travelling with someone who lip-reads.
“It is vital these exemptions are communicated to transport staff and the travelling public – many disabled people fear they may be abused in the street for not following social distancing guidelines, and the public need to understand that there are numerous legitimate reasons for not wearing a mask,” he adds.
How the general public can be helpful
Action on Hearing Loss created an information card with tips for people with hearing loss and advice for the general public and has a section on its website dedicated to providing tips for the general public.
Ian Noon, head of policy at the National Deaf Children’s Society recommends helping by using gestures, writing things down or just asking a deaf person how they’d like to communicate.
“We’d also like to see governments across the UK taking action to make clear face masks widely available, as they would remove some of the barriers to communication… this is a huge opportunity to make a real difference to people’s lives” he added.
Philip Gerrard, CEO of Scottish charity Deaf Action, also told The Independent that while there are prototypes of masks with face windows that keep your lips visible, the charity would like to see more.
“Wearing face masks results in deaf people being cut off from communication in everyday life as well as in critical health care settings. We have seen deaf members of staff not being able to understand simple instructions when attending Covid-19 drive through testing facilities, because the care worker is wearing a mask two metres from the vehicle. “We would like to see the government support the development of PPE approved transparent masks so they are available in care settings as well as in the wider community.”
Where to buy transparent face masks
Engineer Sonia Carley created these Friendly face masks (Friendly Face Masks, from £12.50) to answer a request for a lip-reading friendly face mask in her local area.
They’re reversible too, with a choice of grey, blue, green and pink and are machine washable.
Online retailer Etsy has many options for different styles of transparent face masks, in varying designs, patterns and colours.
For a bright burst of floral decoration, these smile masks (Etsy, £12.71) have a selection of flower-patterned, denim and pastel polka dots styles, made from 100 per cent cotton, with adjustable jersey material ear straps.
This transparent vinyl protecting mask (Etsy, £8.48) has a double-layered cotton frame which you choose the colour of.
It is also designed with a nose fixer too, to limit it moving around when you’re wearing it and is available in sizes small to extra-large.
For sweet prints such as little foxes or bouquets of flowers, this lip-reading clear smile mask (Etsy, £20.95) allows you to choose from vibrant, playful patterns. It has a soft vinyl window and double-layered 100 per cent cotton lining.
You can choose from two straps, elastic or tie loops, depending on your preference.
How to wash face coverings
To keep your mask as clean as possible, WHO recommends washing it once a day, using soap or detergent, with hot water.
However, most reusable fabric masks in materials like cotton and linen are machine washable, but make sure to check the label.
According to the CDC, you should use “the warmest appropriate water setting and dry items completely”.
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