smile masks

Pam Parfitt wears a mask with a see-through plastic cover over her mouth.

Pam Parfitt is a retired violinist with moderate to severe hearing loss.

She is also a person who makes things happen.

Last year, she helped fund the purchase of a hearing loop system for the Lensic Performing Arts Center to enhance sound clarity for patrons who use hearing aids or have cochlear implants.

She also worked to pass a law requiring that the boards for audiology and hearing aid dispensing practices, and speech and language pathologists inform their customers about hearing loops and other ADA-approved alternative listening systems.

Now she is working on a bigger problem: “For those of us who need to read lips but also want to stay safe, there is a huge problem with face masks,” Parfitt said.

“I used to be very independent, but now I must have someone with me when I interface with store clerks or anyone in public,” she said.

Parfitt has already started working on a solution to manufacture “smile masks”: cloth masks that have a clear plastic insert to show the mouth.

Parfitt said a friend of hers is a quilting teacher turned mask-maker who has made 400 masks for hospitals, home health care workers and the Navajo Nation. The friend, Ricki Bremer, is already cutting out masks for the vinyl inserts of smile masks.

“She is donating her labor and I am paying for the supplies,” Parfitt said.

John Hooper, president of the New Mexico Hearing Loss Association of America, has agreed to help distribute the smile masks.

He told Parfitt that he plans to start with his membership and give each person two masks, one to wear one and one to wash.

Research on visual-only speech recognition has shown that individuals with a progressive, rather than sudden, hearing loss have higher lip-reading recognition and that lip-reading ability serves as an important behavioral predictor of who will benefit from a cochlear implant.

But you don’t necessarily have to be an expert lip reader to benefit.

People who use American Sign Language often rely on facial expressions around the mouth for context and grammar.

This concept of “total communication” encourages using any means of communication — sign language, voice, lip reading, finger spelling, writing, gesture, texting and pictures.

According to the research, nonverbal signals from facial expressions to body movement make up a huge part of our daily communication.

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, an auxiliary aid or service may be necessary to ensure effective communication and will vary in accordance with the method of communication used by the individual with a disability.

People with autism, stroke survivors and individuals with neurological disorders, brain injury and intellectual disability will have differing communication problems and needs.

Communication must be adjusted based on the situation — and although using a smile mask with the mouth visible may help some, it may not work for everyone.

It is recommended that workers who interact with the public consult with customers with a disability whenever possible to determine what type of aid is needed.

According to the ADA, the ultimate decision about what measures to take is up to the business or government entity, provided that the method chosen results in effective communication.

In 2019, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 75.3 percent of civilian workers were required to interact with the general public. Practically every occupation, including lawyers, health care social workers, emergency medical technicians, and service and sales personnel, were included on the list.

“For me, store clerks and service people present the greatest challenge for communication,” Parfitt said, adding she wished everyone would wear a smile mask to help maintain “a sense of community rather than isolation.”

Andy Winnegar has spent his career in rehabilitation and is based in Santa Fe as a training associate for the Southwest ADA Center. He can be reached at a@winnegar.com.

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