Have you noticed yourself straining to hear people wearing masks? Me too. Every interaction I have these days feels exhausting. I worry about how hard this will be in the busy ER, and especially for my colleagues and friends with trouble hearing. Even without such hearing difficulties, lip reading is a critical part of speech processing for everyone. This is why widespread access to transparent masks is so important for all of us.
As evidence for universal masking continues to mount, people all over are making plans and purchases for school and office reopenings. As a disabled medical student, I am passionate about making sure my patients don’t face barriers to medical care. I am disappointed that we still do not have access to, or widespread use of, transparent masks.
While lip reading is important for all of us, we should all care about wearing clear face masks so that deaf and hard of hearing (HOH) individuals in our lives can understand us and avoid exclusion from society and unequal access to medical care.
As a medical student, the close contact I have with patients necessitates more stringent protection. Epidemiologists and infection control officers are clear: it would not be safe or allowed for me to use a homemade clear mask when I begin seeing patients again in a few weeks. Yet if I have to wear an opaque mask, anyone who is hard of hearing (one in eight people, or 30 million Americans) will have difficulty understanding me. Masks should be easy to see through without sacrificing protection. Researchers, hospitals, and the CDC must work quickly to integrate accessibility into their guidelines. Clinical spaces have long struggled with accessibility, despite its importance, and this is just another example.
Clinics and hospitals are not the only places where the lack of transparent masks can cause damage. Critical services like grocery stores, post offices, and pharmacies have always been challenging for deaf/HOH individuals. Making transparent masks for themselves does not help—they need their physicians, grocery store cashiers, and pharmacists wearing them when they arrive. Since hearing loss is often an invisible disability, we likely do not know which of our patients, colleagues, or neighbors have difficulty hearing.
Disabled people like me are well-practiced in changing our environments to meet our needs. Since the world around us is frequently inaccessible, we carry step-stools, Lysol wipes, or anything else we need to function safely. When all else fails, we avoid places that are too difficult. What are deaf/HOH individuals supposed to do now? It is certainly impractical to hand out a clear mask to everyone you want to talk to. The few options are expensive and back-ordered.
Some may argue that COVID-19 is too pressing for us to design a new kind of mask. To be fair, many of us, myself included, will be worried about increasing the risk of transmission by using a clear face mask that hasn’t been vetted. Since most clear masks are made of impermeable plastic, it is difficult to decide where to put filtration material. I have faith that medicine can move mountains to solve these problems – just like in April. We shouldn’t have to decide between being allies to the Deaf/HOH community or wearing the most protective PPE. Engineers and infectious disease experts should work now to evaluate the evidence and create a mask that does both.
An accessible world is better for everyone, especially during a pandemic. Today, I urge you to ask your hospital to solve this problem and to write to your legislators demanding this be a tenet of the defense production act. Manufacturers and engineers should compete to design clear masks that are safe, cheap, and reusable. Public health officials, advocates, and hospital systems should advertise and provide them in bulk. When they are available commercially—we should buy and wear nothing else, no matter where we are.
Harry Paul is a medical student.
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