Taylor Berdell and Matt Urichuk in their masks

Helping the Hard-of-Hearing Community

Wearing a cloth face mask is a great way to slow the spread of COVID-19, but it’s not good for members of the hard-of-hearing community who rely on reading lips and facial expressions. 

Taylor Bardell, Artsci’18, and her boyfriend, Matt Urichuk, both PhD students in the field of speech pathology and audiology at Western University in London, are solving the problem by making face masks with clear plastic in the middle. 

They were inspired to make the masks after they found it difficult to talk to each other during a trip to the grocery store. Neither are hearing impaired, but it made them realize face masks are a barrier for people in the deaf and hard-of-hearing communities. 

“I completely understand and agree with face masks, but we need to be thoughtful about the repercussions,” says Ms. Bardell. “It makes communicating and accomplishing daily tasks very challenging. We need to be aware of how to keep people safe and allow the hard-of-hearing community to function.” 

Despite neither of them having any sewing skills, they found instructions online and quickly learned. They launched the Smile Masks Project and have now made and donated more than 125 masks, with requests to make several hundred more.  

The masks are popular with family members who want to be able to communicate with their loved ones. There have also been requests from speech-language pathologists, audiologists, physicians, as well as people who run restaurants and retail businesses who want to communicate better with their customers. 

“It’s really amazing to see that our masks are actually helping and making a difference,” says Ms. Bardell. 

Some alumni who work with people who are hard of hearing are facing the same problem, including Bonnie Cooke, Artsci’06, an audiologist at Kingston’s Hotel Dieu Hospital Site. 

“I have many patients who wear hearing aids but they still rely on lip reading and being able to read facial expressions,” says Ms. Cooke. “I had one patient say to me that it would be better to mask the eyes because the eyes don’t tell you much. It’s how your lips and tongue move.”  

Ms. Cooke says her hospital’s occupational health team is currently in the process of ordering and testing different types of medical-grade clear masks from national manufacturers, so hopefully they will be in the hands of staff soon. 

Ms. Bardell’s does not have the ability to make medical-grade masks, but there is still a long list of people and businesses who want them. She is hoping to recruit a few more volunteers to help meet the huge demand. 

The positive impact of clear masks goes beyond the hard-of-hearing community. Ms. Bardell wears the mask when shopping and it generates many positive comments. 

“The masks get a great reaction from people because they can see our smile. It brings a bit of normalcy back,” says Ms. Bardell. “It’s strange to talk to someone and not be able to see their facial expression.” 

All masks are donated free-of-charge, thanks to support from the Smile Masks Project’s Go Fund Me page.