For the members of the Deaf and hard of hearing community, the recently announced mask mandates have become a barrier not only to the virus, but to everyday communication.
According to statistics by Connect Hearing, Australia’s national healthcare network, one in six Australians currently suffer from some form of deafness.
For those within this demographic, non-verbal cues such as lip-reading, body language, facial expressions and hand formations are often the key to effective communication.
Expression Australia, formerly known as Vicdeaf, spokesperson Sam Cartledge said the new requirements to wear face coverings in public places have rendered facial cues indiscernible.
“The recent mandatory face mask rules have heightened stress and anxiety levels amongst the community in everyday situations,” Mr Cartledge said.
Mr Cartledge, the marketing coordinator of the non-profit organisation and two-time Deaflympian, said although Deaf and hard of hearing people are used to facing communication barriers, the current situation is especially challenging.
“Face coverings completely block communication using Auslan, which relies on the use of facial expression, lip patterns, space and location to communicate. Face coverings form a barrier to all of these and can change the meaning of communication,” he said.
Auslan, which stands for Australian sign language, has been used by Deaf people in Australia for more than one hundred years.
Unique to Australia, the signed language has its own syntax, vocabulary and grammar and has no correlation to English.
Although tools, such as a pen and paper and phone apps, are available to help Auslan users, Mr Cartledge said they are a mentally draining and taxing substitute.
According to the Deaflympian, a common misconception is that Deaf and hard of hearing people have similar needs when it comes to communication.
“Many Deaf people use Auslan as their first language and may not have English as a second language,” he said.
“So, for many, while writing on a piece of paper or a device can help, it’s not ideal and much critical information is lost.”
This is where Melbourne designer and illustrator Danielle Fosberry steps in.
In the last few weeks, Ms Fosberry has sewn, packed and shipped more than 600 ‘inclusive face masks’.
What sets this range of face masks apart are their design, which boast a transparent plastic panel over the mouth area.
“The clear plastic window provides visibility for those who rely on lip-reading and facial expressions as a large form of communication whilst still offering coverage,” Ms Fosberry said.
Her designs have not only been used by the Deaf and hard of hearing community but also for children who rely on facial recognition and expressions for behavioural therapy.
The three-layered face masks are made of high quality polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic with an anti-fog and anti-oil coating and adhere to the standards recommended by the Department of Health and Human Services.
The designer was inspired to start the initiative after learning a hard of hearing friend was struggling with traditional full coverage masks.
“She had seen similar accessible face masks online being sold in the UK, but struggled to find a local option,” she said.
“I agreed to help her out by creating one for her, and from there our inclusive face masks started to gain a lot of traction and interest both locally and internationally.”
Ms Fosberry said she has received a heart-warming response from the public, particularly from those who are Deaf or hard of hearing, or know someone within the community.
One satisfied customer is hard of hearing social worker Courtney Jade Rogers.
“Before [Ms Fosberry] created this incredible mask, I was wearing the full coverage mask and it made me feel very powerless, isolated and angry,” Ms Rogers said.
“I could not understand what my partner was saying while food shopping.
“I’ve ordered one for myself and my partner and I feel so much better to be around him to be able to see his lips.”
Ms Rogers, who works at a Deaf school, said her students have asked their parents and friends to order the masks too so they can feel more engaged.
This sentiment has been echoed by many of Ms Fosberry’s customers, with many of them reporting her masks have helped them feel less cut-off and have reduced their overall anxiety.
“By allowing for visibility of the mouth of those they are communicating with, it has allowed for ease of communication and the response of feeling engaged, included and comfortable,” Ms Fosberry said.
“Especially during times like this where people are often feeling alone and secluded, we want to avoid further cues that can lead to someone feeling isolated and unheard.
“It also helps to show a smile, which can help brighten anyone’s day.”
Expression Australia has downloadable communication cards to support people who are deaf and hard of hearing during this time. They are available here.
This story was first published in Mojo News.