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RALEIGH — More than 48 million Americans have some sort of hearing loss, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
Some of them wear hearing aids while others rely on diminished hearing and lip reading.
As more people begin to wear cloth masks to protect themselves from COVID-19, these hearing impaired people find it more difficult to understand the world around them, experts say.
Raleigh Hearing and Tinnitus Center is trying to help by providing clear masks, so people with hearing loss can read lips and see facial expressions.
Several of these masks also have ties instead of elastic bands, which can interfere with hearing aids.
“When we stayed open, we were seeing everybody curbside. The parking lot is very noisy when traffic is right on Durant Street,” said Dr. Sheri Mello, an audiologist. “We were wearing the traditional covered face masks, and we were serving our patients that had hearing aids that were not working. They were having a difficult time hearing us through the covered masks.”
Mello went online to ask audiology groups for solutions. She found a college student in Kentucky who was majoring in deaf and hard-of-hearing education. The student was making masks out of fabric and clear plastic.
“People could read your lips, look at your emotions,” Mello said. “I got the pattern from her and sent it out to my database to see who could sew for me.”
The next day, she had 20 masks. The center only has four employees, so Mello decided to gift some of her patients with the remainder.
As news of the masks got out, Mello began to receive requests from other audiologists and hearing impaired people across the state. Then, she went viral.
“We’re getting calls from all over the place asking for these masks,” Mello said. “We had a home health agency from Wisconsin that deals with autistic children, saying they needed 40 of these because autistic children can be afraid of the covered masks,”
Mello said she didn’t want to turn down anyone or make the masks available just to her patients. So she is sending a free mask to anyone who calls and asks — anywhere in the country.
Masks are being made by patients, their friends and family and the Bedford Mask Makers, a group of 20 sewers creating masks for the health care community.
“They’re volunteering their time and talent to make these clear masks,” Mello said, adding that the Bedford group has provided three batches of 15 masks each.
“It’s been wonderful,” Mello added. “We’re just so blessed that we are hearing all these needs for the masks. … It’s gone far beyond what we’ve ever imagined.”
Clive Danby has been a patient of Mello’s since his family moved to the area. His wife Cath has made several masks.
“It’s a great idea,” Danby said. “Even though I’m not a lip reader, it’s amazing how you can pick up on visual cues from people’s mouths. Expressions are very limited when it’s a full face mask.”
The masks are more beneficial in a noisy background for Danby who wears hearing aids.
“It certainly helps understand if someone is speaking and the context of the speech if we’re in the grocery store,” he said. “Initially, I started off with the regular face masks that hook behind the ears. There are several negatives to those.”
The elastic bands were interfering with Danby’s hearing aids. He said it’s easier to take the mask off and hang it around his neck using the ties, without having to touch the mask.
Danby said he’s heard of people who have lost hearing aids when a pulled elastic band launches the device across the room.
His wife is an endoscopy nurse that has been furloughed during the pandemic. To keep herself busy, Cath has been making masks.
“She’s currently in the process of making 60 more masks to give to Dr. Mello next week,” Danby said. “It’s just in our nature to give back where we can, and the skills Dr. Mello required matched what Cath likes to do.”
To make the clear piece, the Danbys use clear vinyl shower curtains.
“We started with a medium weight curtain, but we felt it could be a bit more robust,” Danby said. “The instructions specify 8 (millimeter) thick plastic, but it’s hard to specify that. So we’ve experimented and found out the heavy-duty shower curtains work quite well.”
The masks have been high reward for Danby and others like him.
“It makes things so much easier for us,” Danby said. “We’re just trying to fill a need right now.”
For more information or to download the mask pattern, visit https://raleighhearingandtinnituscenter.com.
To request a mask, contact Mello online, on Facebook or by phone at 919-790-8889.