lip-reading smile-panel masks

Taylor Bardell and Matthew Urichuk

Smile panel masks aid communication and lip-reading for the deaf

Clear solution.

Now that Montreal has joined a number of cities across Canada mandating the wearing of masks and face coverings in public places indoors, a new communication barrier has arisen for the deaf and hearing-impaired. While properly worn multi-layered masks are effective in preventing the spread of COVID-19, those who rely on lip-reading are at a major disadvantage. Luckily masks with a clear “smile panel,” allowing lips as well as facial expression below the eyes to be read, are starting to catch on.

“My worst nightmare at the beginning of COVID wasn’t catching COVID,” said Dr. Francine Roussy Layton in a CBC interview, “it was catching COVID, going to the hospital with people talking to me behind masks and me not being to say anything because I can’t breathe — and they don’t know I’m deaf.”

Layton, a psychotherapist in Ottawa, has had to ask cashiers and other service providers to remove their masks so that she can read their lips. She expressed concern for hearing impaired people with dementia “living in a world where they can no longer understand what’s going on,” and questioned why her local hearing centre hasn’t adopted lip-reading masks.

Seeing Voices Montreal founder Aselin Weng says that while her organization hasn’t held any in-person events or activities since the pandemic began — and therefore hasn’t needed to address the notion of adopting a certain type of mask — she has seen discussion of transparent masks with the community but has also noticed that their usage is not widespread.

“We have yet to see them being sold in stores, but as a deaf organization, we have been approached by some suppliers asking is if we were interested in purchasing them,” Weng says, noting that lip-reading masks existed prior to COVID-19. “Deaf health care workers had to find a way to work in settings where masks are used, so these transparent masks have existed for a long time.

“However, there have been many comments about how they fog up during use, so they’re not necessarily effective all the time,” she added.

Fogging up is an issue that Western University graduate students Matthew Urichuk and Taylor Bardell encountered while designing lip-reading / smile panel masks, which they’ve been donating for free. They said that applying a small amount of dish sopa on the inside of the mask once a day was effective in reducing fog.

“Some sort of clear solution is a win-win for both people who are deaf and hard of hearing and for people with typical hearing. We’re all having trouble communicating right now behind the masks,” said Rex Banks, director of audiology at Canadian Hearing Services, who estimate that approximately one million Canadians have a hearing-related disability.

“As people find out about clear masks, they’ll catch on to hopefully more Canadian suppliers will get on board and manufacture them so they become more broadly available,” Banks said in a CTV interview.

More and more mask retailers are selling lip-reading / smile panel masks online, and one U.S. organization has shared instructions about how to make your own. ■

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