COVID-19: Transparent masks made for the deaf and hard of hearing in Belgium

Wearing a mask can prove very challenging for those who are deaf and hard of hearing and who know how to lip read or need to see the faces of the people they are talking to. To overcome this issue, volunteers in Belgium have been crafting transparent face masks.

Wendy Schellemans, an education assistant at the Royal Woluwe Institute in Brussels, a special needs school with several deaf pupils, decided to make transparent masks for their students.

This mask, made with a double layer of cotton fabric, ribbons and a plastic sheet, has generated a buzz in Belgium. It was approved by Belgian virologists and a video where Wendy explains how to make the mask at home has been published on “makefacemasks”, a Belgian site run by volunteers. Her tutorial has already been downloaded thousands of times.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), over 5% of the world’s population has disabling hearing loss. Reading a person’s lips and seeing facial expressions are vital for those who rely on visual communication, such as lip reading or using sign language.

Listening with your eyes

“You don’t realise just how much people who are hard of hearing listen with their eyes,” explains Pascale van der Belen, director of the association Info-Sourds who is herself partially deaf. “I put on my glasses to listen. Beyond lip reading, everyone needs to see smiles, facial expressions, everything that’s non-verbal to understand voices.”

Louisa, an 11-year-old pupil at the Royal Woluwe Institute, says: “It’s better for reading lips and to understand what people are saying.”  Words “lemon” and “February”, for example, are signed by the same hand gesture in Flemish sign language; you can only distinguish them by using your mouth.

Citizens initiatives on the rise

Volunteers at Ferm sewing transparent face masks The citizens initiatives have not stopped there. In the town of Deinze in Flanders, over 160 volunteers from women’s network Ferm sewed 1,200 of the transparent masks in just five days to meet the demand for Flemish schools.

An employee at Brochage-Renaitre makes a transparent face mask

In Brussels, book-binding business Brochage-Renaitre, which employs mainly people with disabilities, has transformed its operations and trained its staff to make transparent masks. It has so far made 10,000 of them.

A more inclusive future

For Marie-Florence Devalet, Director of Belgium’s French-speaking deaf federation, everyone who interacts with people who are deaf and hard of hearing in private and public sectors should wear a transparent mask. This includes staff who work over the counter, in public transport or in hospitals.

Looking beyond that, she believes it would be in the wider interest of the public to wear one of these masks.

“The interest goes beyond people who are deaf and hard of hearing. There’s interest in having social interactions where you can see people’s faces. Everyone needs to see a face,” she says.

For United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres, the COVID-19 crisis is affecting every aspect of our societies, revealing the extent of exclusion that the most marginalized members of society experience.

“People with disabilities are among the hardest hit by COVID-19. Looking to the future, we have a unique opportunity to design and implement more inclusive and accessible societies to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals,” he concludes.


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