NIEPVD’s face masks aim to enable deaf & hard of hearing people to overcome communication barriers
Face masks are here to stay but worldwide people who are deaf and hard of hearing are facing a major challenge as these masks are putting them at a communication disadvantage. The National Institute for the Empowerment of People with Visual Disabilities (NIEPVD) is producing transparent face masks to help address this.
Face masks could well become the norm for a long while given the widespread impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. But few of them are inclusive. If anything, they heighten the feeling of social isolation for people who are deaf and hard of hearing.
“We completely understand the necessity and need for the mask for prevention against Covid 19”, says Vahishtai J Daboo, Listening and Spoken Language Specialist and certified Auditory Verbal Therapist. She is also the co-founder and trustee of VConnect Foundation, a Mumbai-based support group for parents of children with a hearing impairment.
The population that we work with at VConnect are persons who use devices like cochlear implants and hearing aids. Retention of the face mask behind the ear becomes an issue as the hearing device is worn behind the ear. Also, we all at some level use lip reading in our daily communication. Persons with hearing loss, even those using devices, do lip read and need that as a crutch. The masks that are available today make it extremely difficult if not impossible to do that. – Vahishtai J Daboo, Founder, Vconnect Foundation
“Deaf people are finding it hard to communicate easily unless they are using finger spelling”, points out Ruma Roka, Funder, Noida Deaf Society. “Facial expressions and spatial movements are an integral part of sign language, grammar and communication”.
Heightened social isolation
Worldwide there has been no serious attempt to address this. There are some do-it-yourself solutions to make face masks more inclusive like the one designed by Ashley Lawrence, a college student in Kentucky, United States, Ashley adapted a standard cloth mask to add a clear plastic window over the mouth.
Then there’s this really cool-looking mask by Nike. These are face shields that cover the entire face in a thin shield of plastic. However, Nike is yet to mass produce these.
Eco-friendly face masks by NIEPVD
Back in India, the National Institute for the Empowerment of People with Visual Disabilities (NIEPVD) has recognised this gap and is doing something about it. Their solution is Nayan, transparent face masks that enable people who are deaf and hard of hearing to lip-read. The Dehradun-based institute has produced 50 such masks and distributed them among its staff.
The idea, says Nachiket Rout, Director, NIEPVD, was triggered about feedback from some employees said the masks act as a barrier to understanding others. Nayan masks are made of biopolypropylene. This is an eco-friendly, biodegradable plastic where the material side derived from plants.
The Nayan masks will be sent to the Ali Yavar Jung National Institute of Speech and Hearing Disabilities (AYJNISHD) in Maharashtra for quality testing. Based on the feedback from various stakeholders, the NIEPVD plans to approach the Centre with a request for transparent face masks.
“Quality testing will be crucial”, said Sunil M Mathew, Director, AYJNISHD to The Times of India. “This is important before proceeding with mass scaling since humidity and feelings of suffocation are factors to consider”.
In the meantime, one should all learn tips to become proactive communicators. One method suggested is to use a talk-to-text app. Another is to use a pen and paper to write out what you want to say. To the community, Vahishtai recommends some basic tips.
- Carry the UDID Card of their disability certificate that certifies that they have a hearing loss.
- If spoken language is used to communicate, “they need to try and ensure that when they are speaking they are speaking with clarity and speaking louder than normal as when using the mask the voice tends to get muffled”, says Vahishtai.
- Keep a note pad and pen or a phone handy to use use written text as a means to communicate and not be misunderstood for lack of clear communication.
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