Special masks aid communication for deaf and hard of hearing

Special to the Sentinel

Dr. Jennifer Bebee, an audiologist with Western Colorado Hearing & Balance, wears a unique mask made with a window so that the mouth can be seen by those who are deaf or hearing-impaired who use lip-reading or cues made by the lips for better communication.

The N95 mask audiologist Jennifer Bebee wears while seeing patients offers protection but muffles communication.

Some patients have even asked if she could lower her mask so they could hear what she was saying and see her lips moving, Bebee said.

This communication issue isn’t just a problem at Bebee’s practice, Western Colorado Hearing & Balance, but elsewhere in daily life.

People who are deaf or hearing impaired often depend on lip-reading and the cues they receive from seeing the movement of other people’s mouths while talking in order to communicate better. In recent weeks, that has been taken away with the wearing of masks because of COVID-19.

More than a month ago, Bebee went online and ordered masks with windows that allowed the mouth to be seen. Then the seller told her it wasn’t sure when it would be able to get the masks to her.

So she began looking into the possibility of homemade masks using clear vinyl and found some templates online.

“If I were a seamstress, I would have spent all April cranking out masks,” Bebee said. “I have many talents, but sewing is not one of them.”

She approached Carol Schneider, owner of Owls Nest Quilters, which has made quite a number of facemasks recently. Despite being rather burned out on mask making, some quilters took on the challenge and created their own pattern for a mask with a window.

They recently delivered more than two dozen masks to Bebee.

“They took it on in such a lovely way,” Bebee said. “They were so, so, so nice. They didn’t ask for a dime.”

Instead of payment, the quilters requested that any payment for the masks go to the nonprofit Kids Aid. So Bebee’s practice has made a $15 donation per mask to Kids Aid and has asked patients, who will receive a mask free, to make a donation to the nonprofit as well.

“Ideally, everybody would be wearing this kind of mask,” Bebee said. “You don’t know who you’re talking to and hearing loss is abundantly common.”

“Oh my goodness, this is just what I’ve been looking for!” has been the reaction of Bebee’s patients who have received one of the special mask, and the audiologist knows even more are needed — her online order still hasn’t arrived.

Bebee is hopeful that there are other local mask makers who will stitch up one of these special masks for someone who needs it and make an extra one to donate to the practice.

The practice has placed a link to a pattern and instructions for making a mask with a window at its website: wchearingclinic.com.