MANSFIELD — Although wearing a mask can help stop the spread of germs, they also prevent the deaf and hard-of-hearing from reading lips.
The staff at Catalyst Life Services use homemade masks designed with the thought of their clients in mind.
“With the pandemic, the cheapest I could find was a box of 20 for $60, and I could not justify that for a nonprofit,” Director of Deaf Services Tanya Haga said.
Haga searched for CDC approved medical grade masks specially made for the deaf and hard-of-hearing, however due to the increase in price and their limited availability, she held back from getting them.
“If we had thought ahead and purchased them ahead of time, before this pandemic, then they would not have been nearly as expensive. They’re more expensive than the normal masks, but not three dollars a piece,” Haga said.
When Haga informed Audiologist Wendy Page at Catalyst Life Services of her dilemma, Page asked for the link to the masks Haga referred to and quickly shared that image with her sister, Paula Knowles, asking if she could make them.
“Most people who are hard-of-hearing will use lip-reading to help fill in the blanks if they miss a word or two, and the same is true of the deaf,” Page said. “They will rely on lip reading as well as American Sign Language slang for clarification.”
Knowles, who lives in Michigan, contacted a local dry-cleaning company that donated a clear, plastic garment bag that she could use to create the “window” of the mask, then she used pillow cases for the fabric.
In total, Knowles made 20 masks for Catalyst Life Services, and upon receiving attention on social media, made an extra 10 for speech language pathologists. She also donated 100 masks to first responders and others.
“Our clients are missing part of the grammar of what we’re saying, and so they really really like the window masks because then we can give them the whole language while keeping ourselves safe,” Haga said.
Being an essential business, employees still need to go out to court rooms, hospitals and doctors appointments to interpret for their clients.
“We’re trying to provide services remotely, but we still have to go out to the community to interpret because access to communication doesn’t stop being a need during a pandemic,” Haga said.
While she remains grateful for the effort of Knowles, Haga wishes they could receive funding, donations or help locally with providing masks to the deaf and hard-of-hearing community in Richland County.
“I have not seen anyone in the area making these types of masks or selling these types of masks… we can’t see the client’s mouth when they’re signing and we are missing that type of grammar.”
Catalyst Life Services currently serves about 90 deaf and hard-of-hearing people in the Richland County area. As wearing masks may become more normalized in the future, Haga said she can imagine her staff continuing to use the masks post COVID-19.
“In the future they might use them more when we are in a situation where we know somebody is sick,” Haga said. “I foresee us carrying them with us in our purses and pulling them out when necessary.”