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Arizona Commission For The Deaf And The Hard Of Hearing Urges Use Of Clear Masks

By Steve Goldstein
Published: Wednesday, July 29, 2020 - 12:54pm
Updated: Thursday, July 30, 2020 - 10:01am

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Clear mask hearing impaired COVID
Arizona Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing
Sherri Collins models a clear mask.

STEVE GOLDSTEIN: Wearing a mask over your nose and mouth is one small step to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19 -- as we've heard numerous times through this pandemic. The public health benefits are clear, but there's been at least one unintended consequence for communication. Many deaf and hard of hearing individuals read lips and facial expressions for more clear communication or context. If you've tuned in to one of the governor's press conferences recently, you may have noticed an unmasked interpreter using American Sign Language (ASL). In other cases, an interpreter may be wearing a clear mask. And my next guest has been working to get thousands of clear masks out into the world. Sherri Collins is the executive director of the Arizona Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing. And I spoke with her recently. I started by asking just how much a typical mask can complicate communication with people who are hard of hearing.

SHERRI COLLINS: Yes, wearing a mask during this COVID-19 pandemic, challenges that we're living right now is wearing a mask. And for our community who are deaf and hard of hearing, create a communication barrier because your face is covered, we can't read your lips or we can't even do your facial expression. So that puts another barrier of communication, and the last thing that we want to do is anybody to take their mask off. We do not want people to take their mask off, but we would like you to let people to think about other alternative communication options, such as clear masks is what we have launched in Arizona. We launched a statewide clear mask program, and we have used up all of those requests, so we have more clear masks on the way. And the other thing is that people can think about is, with your ... person who is deaf or hard of hearing is thinking about using, depending on the situation, write notes back and forth, or pointing a picture or if you're looking at a menu, you can use that. Other forms of communication can be easily done through your phone. You know you want to write ... to each other. But the last thing, we do not want people to take off their masks. And I had a situation. And, I have two dogs, and one of them ended up having, going to the vet and had to go to the emergency room and had a follow up doctor appointment with the, my primary vet doctor who I've seen many years. And I brought clear masks with me because I needed to read her lips. And she was happy to wear the mask for me. The front desk put that mask on, the clear mask. The doctor as well as the technician. So it really made it really comfortable to communicate with my doctor. At the same time, we all were protected.

GOLDSTEIN: Have you noticed anyone hesitating to want to wear a clear mask? Would you like to see more and more people wear clear masks?

COLLINS: And people think that clear masks is for us who are deaf and hard of hearing. It's actually not, it's for hearing people. We would like to see more of those people, especially in the business community is where I have been talking a lot during the media interview. It's the grocery store, your doctor's office, or even going to get a haircut. It's like my situation with the vet. And they'd be prepared so that when we have clear masks in our hands, we could take it with us and give it to that person and say, "Hey, would you mind wearing a clear mask while we're communicating." So that's why we launched a statewide program, is for those who are deaf and hard of hearing to take with them. Not only that, but also think about family, family members who have children who are deaf and hard of hearing and everybody else is hearing. What about communication with your own family members who have a hearing loss? So to think about all these different scenarios, and now we're getting a lot of requests from public schools. Teachers want to have those clear masks for classroom instruction and, which makes sense. And so I would like to see more big communities to think about if you're going to purchase masks, think about also providing clear masks, especially if you know you have customers who come in and you're going to have that ready on hand if you have somebody come in that needs communication.

GOLDSTEIN: Can I ask you to go back in time a little bit? When the pandemic started, how concerned were you about communication being even more difficult before more people were wearing clear masks, when you started seeing people wear masks that weren't clear?

COLLINS: You know, at the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis, the threat level was, it was extremely high for our community. I mean, we were all like, "What does this mean for us?" Because we were worried about, you know, the information. Are we gonna have enough toilet paper? And what was being shared in the public because we rely on communication, information, through, such as, you know, online website captioning, information translating into American Sign Language and transcripts for those who are deaf, blind — if they can't see the video, we need to have transcripts available. That was a big issue at the beginning of the pandemic. Then the masks. Everybody wanted to get their hands on the clear masks which we tried to get, and they were sold out. Now that the company that we procured, those clear masks have their back inventories so they have enough supplies. But all of that is, it was the very beginning. We were afraid to leave our house. And we had to schedule Zoom meetings through the community to help to ease the stress and the fear and hear from the public what was happening in their environment. So we can better make sure information is available to our community. And in less ways, the governor, Ducey, does when he does his press conference. We have an interpreter and captioning, and that is so important.

GOLDSTEIN: Sherri Collins is executive director of the Arizona Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing. 

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