June 30, 2020
Photos by: Bryan van der Beek | Words by: Stacey Rodrigues
(Photo Above) Teachers at Canossian School don transparent masks to help students with hearing loss understand them better as they are given a “window” to view facial expressions – an important part of speech reading.
he masks that shield us from germs also cover half our faces, making it harder to communicate with others.
For the deaf and hearing-impaired, meaning and nuances from facial expressions are lost. Ms Christina Michael, principal of Canossian School, pointed out that students with hearing loss naturally do speech reading. “A student takes in the entire body and facial expressions as a person is speaking to better understand what has been said.”
“During our regular engagements with the deaf community, we learnt of the challenges that students would face in class with everyone being required to wear face masks,” said Mr Ivan Chin, head of partnerships for SG Enable.
It launched a pilot project to produce transparent masks for the deaf community to improve communication during this period when mask-wearing is required, as part of its mission to build an inclusive society by enabling persons with disabilities.
The agency facilitates partnerships among different people and businesses — each with their own expertise — to do good, said Mr Chin.
In this instance, the expert is Mr Benny Ng, founder and designer of Independent Market.
Before Covid-19 hit, Mr Ng and his team of 14 worked in partnership with artists and brands, such as The Little Dröm Store, to produce everything from apparel to bags, art prints to plates and cushions for the home.
When the demand for masks grew, Mr Ng found himself shifting his production to mask-making out of his sewing studio, Uyii, at Midview City. His team has been producing masks of all colours and designs, including the transparent masks that are now an integral part of teaching attire for the likes of Canossian School, and other schools designated for students with hearing loss, such as Mayflower Primary School, Beatty Secondary School and Lighthouse School.
(Above) The team at Independent Market have turned their production solely to mask-making, and are still finding ways to improve the transparent mask design.
Mr Ng is still looking to improve the transparent mask design. When designing these masks, he had to consider the size of the “window” to show the lips and facial expressions, the kind of plastic it should be made of, and its breathability.
Mask fogging, due to moisture emitted when we speak and breathe, is also a concern. However, it can be easily resolved by rubbing soap on the plastic (without water) before using it. “We are looking to see if we can find a pre-treated plastic material that does not fog up, which will make the masks much more convenient and user-friendly,” he adds.
A Welcome Surprise
For Ms Michael, the donation of 60 transparent masks from SG Enable was “a welcome surprise as they were a better option to the normal cloth face masks or the face shields”. The latter is reflective and can be quite distracting for students. Shields also produce a slight echo as sound waves bounce off the material.
“Students with hearing loss need to hear clear tones to decipher what is spoken. When teachers wear normal cloth or surgical face masks, their speech will be muffled. The see-through masks are certainly the better option.”
Ms Christina Michael, principal of Canossian School
At the Canossian School, the masks are currently only used by teachers so they are clearly understood when teaching.
“Students with hearing loss need to hear clear tones to decipher what is spoken,” adds Ms Michael. Students at Canossian School either use hearing aids or have cochlear implants, and are taught aurally, not through sign language.
“When teachers wear normal cloth or surgical face masks, their speech will be muffled. The see-through masks are certainly the better option. If worn correctly, students can see the entire mouth while teachers are teaching so that speech reading is made easier,” said Ms Michael.
Reception has been positive so far. Students have shared that they are able to hear and understand their teachers better when they wear these masks.
(Above) Benny Ng, founder and director of sewing and printing studio, Independent Market is heartened by the positive feedback that his masks have facilitated better communication for the deaf community in Singapore.
“We are very happy to be able to play our part in helping the deaf community in Singapore,” says Mr Ng. “It’s been a pleasure to receive positive feedback from teachers who’ve shared that the masks have really helped them to better communicate with and understand their students who are deaf or hard of hearing.”
As speech reading is an important communication skill for everyone, regardless of abilities, many other educators and even speech therapists have started requesting these masks.
The transparent masks are available at a non-profit retail price of $10 each, from www.independentmarket.sg