Stock the shelves with more inclusive masks

Isabelle Costello

Because COVID-19 has taken so much from our lives, it’s easy to look past the daily inconveniences that life in a pandemic brings and choose instead to normalize them –– the fogging of glasses over your mask, the awkwardness of Zoom breakout rooms, the squint in place of a smile. 

These minor annoyances test our patience, but life goes on, and we continue to make do with changing circumstances. However, this isn’t a universally shared privilege. For students that are hard of hearing or Deaf, facial coverings and 6-feet social distancing guidelines render on-campus conversations substantially more difficult. 

Face masks inhibit lip reading significantly. Add in a mandatory distance of 6 feet between the speaker and the listener, and a conversation that is merely irritating for hearing students is now hardly possible for those with a hearing disability.

Transparent face masks are a mutually beneficial solution that can make life significantly easier for the hearing loss community; Unfortunately, students wanting to support their peers must shop online or venture off campus to find a place to purchase transparent masks. 

UT-affiliated stores, such as the University Co-op and the Texas Team Shop, should sell transparent face masks to better support students who are hard of hearing or Deaf.

“Wearing masks has severely impacted my communication with other people because I rely on lipreading, and so I now really struggle to understand people,” journalism freshman Claire Clements said in an email. 

Clements uses the term “Deaf” around hearing peers to describe herself. 

“It has made life more difficult because when I can’t understand someone (like when they’re wearing a mask), I tend to not interact with them,” Clements said. 

For Clements, anxiety accompanies everyday tasks such as buying groceries or ordering meals. 

Clements said she believes transparent masks would make conversations easier on her as well as other individuals with hearing loss.

Chang Liu, an associate professor in the Department of Speech, Language and Hearing Sciences, said transparent masks benefit students and faculty across the board. 

“No doubt, auditory-visual integration is very important and essential for people with hearing loss and for people with normal hearing,” Liu said. 

Liu explained that when we are having a conversation face-to-face, our perception is made up of both audio cues (the sound we hear) and visual cues (the facial expressions someone makes and the shapes their lips form). When only one of these indicators is present, there is a “significant negative impact on the person’s perception and hearing.”

In addition to the hearing loss community, nontransparent masks present daily challenges for those in the aging population as well as people learning new languages. While students can request a clear mask through an accommodation process, making them available to hearing students is essential. 

Even for hearing students, seeing the full faces and smiles of professors and peers while still protecting the health of our community will serve to create a more accepting, open environment for students and faculty.

“We have reached out to our vendors for information on clear masks to bring them in store but have not heard back yet,” Cheryl Phifer, president and CEO of the University Co-op, said in an email. “We plan to offer clear masks if this product is available from our vendors.”

By taking the step to sell transparent face masks, UT stores will encourage students and faculty to support one another in daily conversation.

It’s a simple swap, but your choice in fabric could make someone’s everyday life easier. In all honesty, a warm smile in place of the dreaded squint could do us all a little good right about now. 

Costello is a neuroscience freshman from Boerne, Texas.