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.

The Story Behind The Communicator Mask

The Story Behind The Communicator Mask

clear mask story

by Dr. Anne McIntosh – Safe’N’Clear, Inc. Founder & CEO.

Our family started with the birth of their daughter.  On a Friday evening, my amniotic sac broke; my husband and I checked into a large hospital in Charlotte expecting a normal delivery after a non-eventful 9-month pregnancy with regular prenatal visits.  After more than 25 hours of labor, I was well-aware that my risk factors for infection were now increased. I informed the nurse on duty that my water broke more than 25 hours ago (the staff work on 8-hour shifts). The nurse notified the attending OB/GYN physician and the doctor determined a C-section was needed.

I was taken to the OR and prepped for C-section. All personnel in the OR were garbed in surgical scrubs from head to toe, including facemasks — I could no longer read their lips and understand what they were saying to each other or to me. A white drape was placed between the OB/GYN and me so I could see nothing and could not piece together what was happening. On top of being tired, hungry, excited, and anxious, I had a hard time following verbal requests from health providers because I could not read their lips. Yes, my husband was there but he, too, was garbed in surgical scrubs and a face mask. In order to deal with what was going on and to keep my own sanity and blood pressure within reason, I made the executive decision to “shut down” and turned all decision-making and answering questions tasks to my husband in hopes that between him and the medical providers, they had the information they needed and everything would turn out all right.  In a matter of minutes, I went from being a “doctor with a PhD who could communicate and articulate well” to a numbed, tired, fatigued patient who was counting on mercies and miracles all the way. Prayers were answered. All ended well… but I recognized how close this childbirth came to possibly not having a happy ending. Realizing that many people with hearing loss have experienced similar frightening situations or may face such a situation, I knew there was a better way and I had to find a solution.

I spoke with my brother, an attorney, and described the situation (minus a few childbirth details) and told him how the problem could be resolved with a TRANSPARENT mask.  And, here we are… an FDA approved ASTM-Level 1 surgical face mask with a clear window manufactured in the USA.

RSS Medical Distributors to help serve the needs of US military hospitals and VA facilities

RSS Medical Distributors to help serve the needs of US military hospitals and VA facilities

rss medical logoSafe’N’Clear, Inc. is pleased to announce RSS Medical Distributors (RSS) as an official distributor of the Communicator™ Clear Window Surgical Mask.

RSS specializes in niche healthcare product sales to military hospitals and VA facilities around the U.S. and abroad.  RSS is acutely aware of the needs of active military service men and women and veterans, citing hearing loss as a huge component of their ability to understand their healthcare providers and treatment regimens.  Many men and women in service are “hands-on” people who like to see the action; they tend to be visual learners, doers, and listeners so they will want to see their healthcare and dental care providers’ faces when interacting during appointments.

RSS is also aware of the need to minimize noise in the operating room.  A report published by The Joint Commission on August 14, 2017 found that too much noise in the operating room can distract surgeons and increase the risk for medical errors. With so much noise in the O.R., surgeons and operating room staff often find themselves having to speak louder than normal in order to communicate with each other. Knowing that this is an active concern at the VA, RSS and the Department of Veteran Affairs are currently collaborating to create solutions to help reduce noise in the O.R. RSS plans to utilize the Safe’N’Clear Communicator™, with its clear communication window, to help providers reduce the need for elevated voice levels while communicating during a surgery case by having the ability to visually see what members of the surgical team are trying to communicate, therefore helping increase overall communication and decrease additional noise levels in the operating room.

RSS Medical Distributors is a certified minority-owned, small-disadvantaged business. For more information about RSS and other products they carry, contact Quedon Baul directly.

RSS Medical Distributors 3001 Hardin Blvd, McKinney, TX 75070    Toll Free Phone: 1.877.644.7594    Toll Free Fax: 1.877.644.7603

Email:   Web:

“Proud Members of the AUSA – Association of the United States Army”


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