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Clear Face Masks Help Deaf, Hard of Hearing Central Floridians Communicate During Pandemic

Photo: Lion Dennis Dulniak
Photo: Lion Dennis Dulniak

As coronavirus cases surge in Florida, businesses are responding by requiring face masks. This creates a big problem for people who are Deaf and hard of hearing who rely on lipreading.

Volunteers with the Lions Club 35-O have come up with a solution: they’re making see-through face masks.

Lions member Dennis Dulniak got the idea to make clear face masks from a story he saw on WFTV.

Dulniak worked with a fellow Lion to modify a standard face mask print, adding a fog-proof window of clear plastic over the mouth. Soon, a team of four seamstresses were making the masks by the hundreds to pass out for free.

"I have orders and will have sent out 618 in the first five weeks we’ve been doing this. That’s a lot."

Dulniak said he’s been blown away not only by the number of people who are reaching out and asking for the masks, but by their reasons for wanting them. He says he’s already had orders from local public schools' special ed departments.

“It’s not just the Deaf and hearing impaired. It is the schools. It is the hospices.”

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Lions clear face masks and face shields. Photo: Dennis Dulniak[/caption]

Twelve-year-old Jocie Dagenais is Deaf and before she got her cochlear implants, she relied heavily on lipreading for communication. That became impossible with standard face masks. 

She’s also the girl who WFTV interviewed and inspired Dennis Dulniak to start making clear face masks. 

“I was probably missing about 60 to 75 percent of every sentence and so it was really hard.”

Dagenais had her cochlear implant surgery during the pandemic. The doctors and nurses were all wearing facial coverings which made it hard for her to always understand what was going on.

“If they knew that I wasn’t catching on, they would sometimes pull down their masks so I could see their lips real quick and then they’ll pull it back up. Because normally there’s only like one person in the room at a time. Other than my parents. But it was still a little scary especially at like the reception and stuff.”

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Lion Liz Savage sewing face masks. Photo: Dennis Dulniak[/caption]

Dagenais’s mom Katie Mitzner says that’s where the see-through face masks come in. They help Jocie lip-read and see people’s facial expressions. But she says they’re not failproof. 

"So, understand if people ask you to repeat something a lot of people may be hard of hearing, might be senior citizens who've had just progressive hearing loss because of age. And there’s a lot of people out there who just have a hard time with the muffled and the mouth covered."

President and Daytona State College professor Wendy Wilson who is blind says more needs to be done to help people with disabilities during the pandemic.

“Yes, we need more interpreters, we need to make it less expensive.”

But she says innovations like see-through face masks are a step in the right direction.

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Connie Sorice wears a clear face mask. Photo: Dennis Dulniak[/caption]

“Again, it’s all about education. People don't understand people with disabilities until they’re walking in our shoes.”

Wilson says they recently ordered enough plastic to make 14,000 more face masks. She says they’re going to The Villages this week to find more sowers.

And in the meantime, middle schooler Jocie Dagenais says if you can’t write down what you’re trying to say, here are some tips to communicate with someone who has hearing loss. 

“If you are talking with them, make sure that you’re visible. And if you do have a mask, maybe if you had a clear one, they could see your lips. And if you do know sign language, I’m pretty sure they would really appreciate it.”

People interested in obtaining these face masks or face shields can email CentralFloridaLionsHearing@gmail.com or use this form.

Please note: In an earlier version of this story it identified Dennis Dulniak as a DeLand Lion. Dulniak is with the Lions Club District 35-O which includes but is not exclusive to the DeLand Lions Club.
If you'd like to listen to this story, click on the clip at the top of the page.

Danielle Prieur is a general assignment reporter and fill-in host at WMFE.