Read my lips - a face mask to help the deaf

27 May 2020 - 12:54 By Nivashni Nair
Lauren Neilson, a fourth-year speech and language pathology student, began making lip-reading masks when she realised how hard it was to communicate with deaf people when wearing a conventional mask.
Lauren Neilson, a fourth-year speech and language pathology student, began making lip-reading masks when she realised how hard it was to communicate with deaf people when wearing a conventional mask.
Image: Sandile Ndlovu

A Cape Town occupational therapist who turned her love of sewing into a self-run business, and a Durban entrepreneurial speech therapy student are unmasking lips to help deaf people communicate amid the Covid-19 pandemic in SA.

Based on opposite sides of the country, Rowan Banks and Lauren Neilson do not know each other, but have both come up with an ideal solution - a mask with a sealed, transparent thick plastic communication window - to help people to lip-read.

Between them, the pair have already received more than 100 orders within a week of announcing that that such a mask is available in SA.

“When we all had to start wearing masks my cousin, Megan, mentioned to me how hard it was for her to hear what people were saying as she couldn’t see their lips moving. She asked me if it would be possible to make a mask with a see-through window — mainly to create awareness for the deaf and hard of hearing,” said 23-year-old Banks.

Banks and her cousin Megan Young, who was born with Waardenburg syndrome, which causes partial hearing loss, then looked for patterns online.  

Rowan Banks and her cousin Megan Young showing off their lip-reading masks.
Rowan Banks and her cousin Megan Young showing off their lip-reading masks.
Image: supplied

“I tried a few out, made some adaptations, and created a mask. We decided to post it on social media last week. From there it’s been shared all over the country, and since then I have received just over 80 mask orders,” Banks explained.

The mask does mist up quickly, Banks said.

“We’ve found that rubbing dishwashing liquid stops it from misting up for about 30 to 45 minutes, but it’s not necessarily a mask you want to be wearing non-stop for the whole day. Masks with see-through windows have received a lot of criticism for this, but for us it is really about providing another option for people with hearing loss. It’s about making it possible for deaf family members and friends to communicate with each other when in public.

“Teachers and health professionals have also been really excited about these, as smiles and facial expressions are so important in conveying meaning and love to their students and patients,” she explained.

Young said she was happy that her cousin was able to provide an option that made communication for the deaf accessible.

“Nothing means more to a person who is hard of hearing than when someone looks directly at them while speaking, if they speak slightly slower, makes sure there is not too much background noise and when people don't all speak at the same time - and of course not having to wear a mask at all. But during these challenging times I have found this to be better than nothing and suitable for the short visit or walk.”

Neilson, a fourth-year speech and language pathology student, came up with the idea when thinking about how she, along with clinicians in the fields of speech and hearing, would effectively conduct speech therapy sessions, and communicate with patients who rely on lip-reading.

“Word has spread through my marketing efforts and I have gained an enormous amount of support from my lecturers, fellow clinicians and other health-care professionals, as well as the South African Speech-Language-Hearing Association (SASLHA). I have solely handmade masks and have orders for 25 since inception just one week ago and am presently negotiating to supply 100 masks to a school for the hearing-impaired.”

Deaf Federation of SA national director Bruno Druchen explained that if mouths are covered, the hard of hearing are unable to communicate effectively.

“When in a store and people are using a mask, we are not sure that they are trying to communicate with us because we can’t see that their mouths are moving because we can’t hear them. Many deaf people rely on facial expressions for communication. Some will read lips. The mouth has movements that helps deaf people to understand the tone that hearing people are presenting,” he said.

Druchen added that masks also hide emotion.

“Hearing people can hear a friendly voice greeting them behind the mask. For the deaf, many look so angry behind the masks.”


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