The deaf community is facing new barriers as we navigate inaccessible face masks and struggle to follow news broadcasts and teleconferences — but the tools for accessibility are out there

The deaf community is facing new barriers as we navigate inaccessible face masks and struggle to follow news broadcasts and teleconferences — but the tools for accessibility are out there

Face masks are a major barrier to reading lips. 
REUTERS/Amir Cohen/File Photo

As originally posted in Business Insider

  • Sarah Katz is a freelance writer who covers the intersection between disability and mental health, relationships, entertainment, and public services. 
  • As a deaf individual, the coronavirus pandemic has been particularly difficult for her to navigate — people wearing masks obstructing their lips presents major barriers to communication.
  • Some deaf individuals have faced difficulty in healthcare — many are no longer allowed to use in-person interpreters.
  • Teleconferencing software’s auto-captioning can be unreliable and error-filled, making it less accessible to the hard of hearing.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Since President Trump declared a national emergency due to the COVID-19 outbreak over a month ago, I have communicated in person with only one individual outside my home: the pharmacist who handed me my prescription from the drive-through window. 

Only I couldn’t really communicate with the pharmacist, because I am deaf and couldn’t read their lips through the opaque white surgical mask. Still, after a laborious exchange in which I used gestures and the little residual hearing I have, I valiantly left with what I came for.

While the outbreak has upended life for everyone, deaf and hard of hearing individuals like me have encountered significant barriers to communication during this crisis. This should come as no surprise, since research shows that deaf and hard of hearing people in the United States are largely underserved during emergencies. It’s deplorable, though: 48 million Americans are deaf and hard of hearing, and several federal laws mandate our protection during emergencies — but everyone keeps forgetting we exist. It’s time for this country to establish a comprehensive set of national guidelines that enable state and local governments to provide access to emergency services for deaf and hard of hearing people before, during, and after a crisis.

For one, inaccessible face masks shouldn’t be the standard. They hinder speechreading and present barriers for deaf and hard of hearing individuals who use American Sign Language (ASL) or Cued American English via Cued Speech (CS), a visual mode of communication that disambiguates speechreading. ASL grammar is displayed on the face, while CS uses handshapes, placements, and mouth movements. Both require facial expression to supply meaning and tone that would otherwise be conveyed through speech, which inaccessible masks hide. 

But, lest you think they’re a necessary evil, accessible face masks do exist. Safe’N’Clear, Inc., a company that develops surgical masks, has created a mask with an FDA-approved, fog-resistant transparent window to facilitate clear and unrestricted communication. 

Clear masks could make everyone happier in the long run. Safe’N’Clear founder and Chief Executive Officer Dr. Anne McIntosh told Business Insider that, while the “The Communicator” mask does benefit people who are deaf and hard of hearing, her invention helps everyone communicate more effectively. 

Anne McIntosh, Safe’N’Clear founder and CEO. 

“The human smile is such a NECESSARY part of our ability to connect with others, especially when social distancing says we cannot hug, shake hands, kiss, or wrap our arms around another person’s shoulder,” she wrote in an email. “As social beings, we need to feel ‘connected’ and ‘in relationships’ with others and the smile is our way to communicate ‘community’ to others.”

In addition to making it harder for millions of deaf Americans to communicate, opaque masks are harming their mental health. Several deaf individuals have told me that the prevalence of masks triggers significant anxiety, to the point where they avoid leaving their homes altogether for essential activities, such as grocery shopping. 

“I’ve had my husband do all the shopping and errands for us,” said Courtney Poole, a deaf home health care manager in Locust, North Carolina, “mainly due to my fear of not being able to talk to or understand anyone wearing masks and standing far away. Basically, I don’t want to deal with it.”

The barriers transcend face masks: As confirmed cases of the coronavirus overwhelm hospitals, deaf and hard of hearing patients are reporting inadequate accommodations in hospital settings. 

For example, many medical professionals are treating patients from behind a barrier and not allowing in-person interpreters. On April 16, The Los Angeles Times reported that Jennylee Bruno, a deaf author and mother of five, received an American Sign Language interpreter over video conferencing software, but the feed froze multiple times while Bruno received her feared diagnosis of COVID-19, heightening her anxiety. 

“I feel like they were giving me a death sentence,” she told the Times. “I wanted to ask, am I going to die, what can we do, is there a cure, what about medications, what’s the plan?”

Sandi Sinnott, a deaf Navy retiree in Havelock, North Carolina, shared a similarly horrifying story. She told Business Insider that she went to the local emergency room in March for a “simple CT scan” for pneumonia and ended up hospitalized for a week with only choppy video access to a remote interpreter. She said that she was not told why she was admitted, adding, “I believe they said as little as possible because of communication barriers.”

Sinnott also said that she was not initially tested for COVID-19, because she didn’t have a fever; however, she later received a test that came back negative.

Deaf and hard of hearing individuals are also reporting unsatisfactory access to information about the outbreak. 

“Many government press briefings were not accessible to deaf and hard of hearing people, and to address this issue, we have been focused on advocating for American Sign Language (ASL) interpreters and accurate captioning in all broadcasts of such emergency briefings,” said the National Association of the Deaf’s Chief Executive Officer Howard Rosenblum. “We have received many complaints from deaf and hard of hearing people unable to understand from the briefings what they are supposed to do or avoid to stay safe and healthy, and we have given them tools to advocate for their communication access.”

Rosenblum explained that while live national broadcasts must provide captioning under federal law, live news broadcasts from local new stations aren’t required to provide captioning and are “only live captioned in the top 25 markets.” Those that do provide captioning are “usually” not accurate, he said, “as most of them recycle the teleprompter script as captioning, and that does not include breaking news which is what most emergency broadcasts entail.”

Calls for social distancing have also affected deaf and hard of hearing people in many other areas, including in K-12 education, universities, workplaces, and courtrooms. While teleconferencing platforms enable many people to continue learning and working from home, many don’t know that auto-captioning through these platforms is often unreliable and riddled with errors, which makes it all the more important that those in positions of power employ truly inclusive measures informed by the realities faced by the deaf community.

To address these problems, the NAD is urging all government agencies to implement the recommendations detailed in their emergency communication position statement, and for hospitals to utilize their guidelines. The NAD and other advocates have also created a guide for deaf and hard of hearing individuals who may need to visit the hospital.

Experts and resources on disability-inclusive emergency management abound. It’s time to use them before it’s too late.

Presbyterian/St. Luke’s Medical Center is helping to change the face of health care with a new clear window mask.

Presbyterian/St. Luke’s Medical Center is helping to change the face of health care with a new clear window mask.

How a new face mask is changing the face of health care

Simple idea could make big difference

Video by Isaac Blancas.   Originally posted here by Kumasi Aaron, Scripps Media. 

DENVER — It’s easy to take things for granted, like being able to talk with your doctor when you need to. But what if you couldn’t?  Sometimes the simplest of ideas can make the biggest of differences.

Tim Tyler said he had to learn to cope with losing his hearing after serving in World War II.    “I had ringing in my ears,” Tyler said. “And gradually it got worse or worse over the years.”   He got hearing aids, and learned to read lips.  “It was very helpful,” Tyler said. “You use it unconsciously when you look at people. I can hear a lot better than if I go this way.”  So when Tyler ended up at Presbyterian/St. Luke’s Medical Center battling pneumonia, his doctors wearing traditional face masks made communication a challenge.

So they traded those masks for one with a clear opening at the mouth.   It was an idea the hospital got from one of its bedside nurses, Cindy Schauer. She was struggling to communicate with a patient’s mother, who is hearing impaired.”Throughout the day I would have to step out the room take my mask down,” Schauer said. “Then foam in foam out, do all the sanitary things to get back in isolation. And after 12 hours I was frustrated for the mom. Because I’m like other people might not really try to let them read their lips. Plus it took a lot longer.”  Schauer talked with her daughter, who is hearing impaired, and learned about a clear face mask called “The Communicator.”

“Necessity is the mother of all invention,” said Dr. Anne McIntosh, who developed The Communicator.  McIntosh is also hearing impaired and relies heavily on reading lips to communicate. While in the hospital for more than 24 hours giving birth to her daughter, she was unable to understand her doctors and nurses who were all wearing traditional masks.   “I just remember the fear that came over me during that encounter,” Dr. McIntosh said. “And it was so preventable had simply been able to follow the conversation.”  She wanted to do something about it and came up with an idea; a face mask with a clear window.  “It’s the little things in life that make a difference though right?” Dr. McIntosh said.

Now, The Communicator is the first FDA approved medical mask of its kind; one Dr. McIntosh believes can change the face of health care.  “The better I can understand what you’re saying to me the better I can respond so that you can help me,” Dr. McIntosh said. “I need to be able to help you so that you as a health care or dental provider can assist me.”  “It’s a great invention,” Tyler said. “Why somebody didn’t think about it before. I don’t know. But I figured it’s a great thing.”

A simple solution, clearing the way for something often taken for granted.

Thanks to everyone at Presbyterian/St. Luke’s Medical Center and especially Cindy Schauer for her support!

If your hospital or practice would like to try out The Communicator and improve communication with patients, contact us

DPAN.TV discusses The Communicator™ with Deaf Health Initiative.

DPAN.TV discusses The Communicator™ with Deaf Health Initiative.


Some great questions and comments were raised on this DPAN.TV post. Please allow us to share a few additional facts to help clear up any misunderstanding.
#1 Interpreters LOVE the Safenclear clear window mask because it helps improve their communication while providing much needed protection, Interpreters like Designated Interpreters LLC and Interpretek are some great customers;
#2 this clear window mask was designed to be used in surgical settings and has received FDA approval and ASTM certification as a Level 1 surgical mask;
#3 this patented mask has a unique NO FOG design.
Give the mask a try and see for yourself. If you are not ready to buy, message us or email to request a sample.

Deaf Professor Brings Transparent Surgical Mask to US Healthcare to Facilitate Lipreading and Communication

Deaf Professor Brings Transparent Surgical Mask to US Healthcare to Facilitate Lipreading and Communication


Anne McIntosh didn’t plan to become an entrepreneur, but when she delivered her baby, her world changed. When she needed an emergency c-section, everyone donned masks. Hard of hearing, she lost her ability to communicate when she could no longer read lips. She’s spent 16 years bringing a transparent surgical mask to market.

Interview with Dr. Anne McIntosh, the President of Safe’N’Clear, Inc.

Deaf Professor Brings Transparent Surgical Mask to US Healthcare to Facilitate Lipreading and Communication

The following is the pre-interview with Dr. Anne McIntosh. Be sure to watch the recorded interview above.

What is the problem you solve and how do you solve it?

I could not lipread my medical provider during childbirth; what were they saying to me?  My health and the health of my newborn depended on my ability to communicate and cooperate with those helping me. They were wearing protective gear (masks) that blocked my ability to see their lips. I partnered up with a US manufacturer who understood and had compassion for what I was going through and knew I was not the only one. Prestige Ameritech has partnered with Safe’N’Clear, Inc. to bring an FDA approved  ASTM 2100 Level 1 face mask with a clear view to the market.

I did approach larger mask manufacturers in the past and they were satisfied with profit margins they were making in the masks that exist today on the market.  They did not think there was enough “profit” to be made in this mask that would benefit children (reduce their fears and anxiety by being able to see the warm, caring smile of their healthcare provider) or the one in seven Americans who have a hearing loss and depend on lip-reading and facial expressions. Being a social entrepreneur means that you do what is right; while The Communicator will benefit these populations; truth is that EVERYONE gets additional understanding from looking at others during communication exchanges so The Communicator can become the gold standard for all masks. Think about this: Out of deafness, the world has the gift of telephones, Morse Code, and the Internet. These innovations were created to improve communication. The Communicator face mask with a clear view is such an innovation.

And, we have also identified ONE organization that we will support with our proceeds: Solace for the Children, Inc. is a non-profit organization that brings children from war-torn countries to the US for medical, dental, and optical care. We believe in their mission of building peace on a foundation of health. Solace has helped children of all kinds of medical issues, including hearing loss.

More about Safe’N’Clear, Inc.:

Facebook: @SafeNClear


Safe’N’Clear, Inc. is a deaf-owned, woman-owned company that strives to make sure communication-friendly products are available.  Right now, we are focused on a face mask that is used in medical and dental industries that healthcare providers can use that allows others to see more of their faces, facial expressions, and read lips. With 93 percent of the meaning in communication coming from non-verbal, The Communicator mask with a clear view is great for everyone.

For-profit/Nonprofit: For-profit

Revenue model: Revenues stem from sales of The Communicator mask with a clear view, model FM86000

Dr. Anne McIntosh

Dr. Anne McIntosh’s bio:

Dr. Anne McIntosh is a college professor who has taught communication classes/workshops in the private sector and post-secondary level. She has published journal articles, edited book chapters, and authored three books related to communication. When she and her husband went to the hospital to deliver their first child, Dr. McIntosh quickly went from being a confident and competent “communication expert” to one who was unable to communicate effectively with her healthcare providers after they put on medical masks and she could not lipread what they were saying. Fortunately, all went well and mother and baby were fine; however, Dr. McIntosh knew this was not everyone’s outcome. Dr. McIntosh started on a quest to make sure that a medical face mask with a transparent window around the mouth was available to the US medical and dental markets.

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