A college senior in Kentucky noticed an accessibility issue around coronavirus safety — so she and her mom brainstormed a solution. Ashley Lawrence, a 21-year-old studying education for the deaf and hard of hearing at Eastern Kentucky University, is making face masks with a clear plastic panel in the middle, which makes the mouth of the wearer visible. This model provides crucial assistance for Deaf and hard of hearing people, who may read lips or speak American Sign Language.
"For anyone who uses speech reading, lip reading, anybody like that," Lawrence told Lex 18. "And people who are profoundly deaf who use ASL as their primary mode of communication. ASL is very big on facial expressions and it is part of the grammar.”
In fact, ASL’s use of the hands and face for communication could put Deaf and HOH people at higher risk for contracting COVID-19, as one of the recommendations to avoid contracting it is to stop touching your face. And there is definitely a need for the masks. “Everyone at my job is wearing face masks,” Twitter user Deaf Greg tweeted. “When they talk to me, I give them this confused look ‘cause I don’t know what they saying.”
Other deaf and hard of hearing people have mirrored this same struggle as masks become a more prevalent part of navigating this pandemic. “I’m a deaf doctor, looking after elderly ward patients — some with #coronavirus,” Helen Grote, a U.K.-based doctor, tweeted. “I’m struggling on ward rounds because I can’t lip read colleagues. Anyone know where I can get transparent masks from?”
Because of this, Lawrence felt that the time to help an overlooked population is right now. "I felt like there was a huge population that was being looked over," Lawrence told Lex 18. "We're all panicking right now and so a lot of people are just not being thought of. So, I felt like it was very important that, even at a time like this, people need to have that communication."
Lawrence said she and her mother are experimenting with different kinds of masks, including ones that wrap around the head or neck to accommodate people with cochlear implants or hearing aids. In just a few days, Lawrence has received dozens of orders; she’s currently offering her masks for free to anyone who needs one.
Refinery29 has reached out to Ashley Lawrence for comment. We will update this story when we know more.
COVID-19 has been declared a global pandemic. Go to the Public Health Agency of Canada website for the latest information on symptoms, prevention, and other resources.