Ford Motor Co. develops clear mask to help deaf, hard of hearing during pandemic

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In our masked-up world, the cloth masks designed to protect us from the pandemic can make it hard to communicate.

"Just seeing somebody’s face and the emotion or the real message behind the words," says Jim Baumbick, Ford Motor Co.’s vice president of enterprise product management.

"Many times the cloth masks muffle the speech and the sounds," adds Darlene Zangara, executive director of the Minnesota Commission of the Deaf, DeafBlind and Hard of Hearing (MNCDHH). "It’s harder to catch what people are saying."

Amid the hubbub of daily life, there are special challenges for the deaf and hard of hearing community.

Janie Barlow, a Burnsville mom with hearing loss, uses signing and lip reading to communicate with her 5-year-old son and others. She says a cloth mask can get in the way.

"In the deaf community, we rely heavily on facial expressions," Barlow explains. "So when you’re covering up, I can’t tell if you’re smiling or your face is (frowning). We use our face a lot for expression and language."

Barlow is not alone. The MNCDHH estimates 1 in 5 Minnesotans has hearing loss.

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"It is very critical that we can see the entire face and not have the lower half blocked," Zangara said.

One solution is the use of clear masks.

The MNCDHH says it’s partnered with the Minnesota Department of Human Services to distribute 3,300 clear masks statewide and passed out another 500 clear masks at socially distanced census and voting events. The agency says it’s also distributed another 1,200 masks to the Deaf Mentor Family Program, Minnesota Hands and Voices, the Minnesota Employment Center and RISE Incorporated.

But some in the community say more masks are needed.

"We just have one, and it’s for my son," says Suzanne Iwainat of Little Falls. "He got it from his deaf and hard-of-hearing teacher."

Iwainat says her 8-year old son, Lucas, and her 15-year old daughter, Ella, who both have hearing loss, have to share that one mask.

KSTP asked how hard is it to find masks with a clear front.

"I can’t find them, like, sold anywhere," Iwainat exclaims. "I’m not exactly sure where his teacher got them from. That’s the only one we have, and I have two kids that could use them. And their teachers as well."

But help may be on the way from an unexpected source.

Ford Motor Co. is planning the rollout of clear face masks with N95 filtration.

The automaker says the masks are washable and have anti-fog technology.

"It just opens the world up. It’s night and day versus a typical cloth mask," Baumbick says. "It’s an anti-fog coated plastic that’s vacuum-formed, kind of give you a shape. And then the mask has filters on the side."

Ford has been producing face masks, ventilators and face shields for nearly a year now. The effort coordinates work between company engineers and health officials to devise products in the battle against the pandemic. At this point, the company says federal regulators are testing the clear mask to see if it meets N95 requirements.

The effort began when Ford started considering solutions for its own employees with hearing loss.

"Not only the need to help those that need to see facial expressions but just the application, whether it’s maybe speech therapy or young children just trying to learn how to speak," Baumbick notes. "You can replace the filters to deliver that N-95 level of protection while maintaining more of a human connection."

Ford says it’s already given away 100 million other masks across the country, but the company says it wants to do more, hoping soon it will be able to both donate and sell the clear masks.

"In my opinion, the clear mask will be a definite advantage for lip readers and those hard of hearing," says Richard Donovan, a retired physical therapist.

Donovan has a cochlear implant to help with hearing in one ear and says the clear masks would be a game-changer.

"I was born with fifty-percent hearing in each ear," Donovan says. "I both hear and read lips to communicate. So if I can see lips, it helps me. But I think it will be beneficial in other ways. For example, all of us want to see smiles again."

Ford isn’t releasing details about the clear mask rollout yet. A spokesperson says manufacturing costs are still being finalized and the company plans to distribute the clear masks sometime in the spring.

More smiles and better communication.

"My kids rely on lip-reading every day," Iwainat says. "It’s very important, you know, cause if you just see this part, you have no idea."

And what about those new masks?

"I think that’s cool," she smiles. "I got to see a picture of them, and I wouldn’t mind trying one out."