By Sandra M. Leonard Ph.D.
Assistant English Professor
In this masked pandemic environment, we are facing the added problem of miscommunication because of masks. Until we can safely leave masks off entirely, one partial solution is to normalize wearing clear masks.
I teach linguistics in the English department here at KU, and one principle that I emphasize to my students each semester is that language is not just speech. Language is also conveyed through even the most minute facial expressions.
An eye flick can signal dismissal, a sideways smile can give an otherwise sincere statement an ironic twist, and baring ones’ teeth can convey an aggressive intent in a way that no vocal intonation can.
Masks hiding half our faces is surely a problem with particular consequences for the academic environment.
Students not understanding a professor’s joke, professors misreading a student as being disrespectful, and many more uncomfortable mishaps can result from missing a smile or frown hidden under a mask.
Clear masks are cloth or foam-lined masks that cover the wearer’s nose and mouth. They have a transparent plastic window in the front that allows others to see the wearer’s mouth.
These masks differ from facial shields because they seal at the bottom of the chin, which prevents droplets from escaping. Vents at the side and cloth at the bottom and sides allow for ease of breathing while protecting others as much, if not more, than some cloth masks.
Besides making facial expressions easier to read, these masks make communication more accessible to people with hearing disabilities. Deaf and hearing-impaired people often rely upon lip-reading to fully understand speech, and this strategy is made impossible with opaque masks.
Deafness and hearing impairments are more common than many people realize. According to the World Health Organization, over five percent of the world population has disabling hearing loss and many more have milder forms of hearing loss.
My own sister is hearing impaired, and I have had students and colleagues who are deaf or hearing impaired.
Lip-reading is a key strategy for dealing with our speech-centric world, and these people deserve linguistic access to all aspects of campus life.
This summer I recommended that the KU bookstore order clear masks, and the ClearMask™ brand they have in stock is fairly comfortable and non-fogging, as well as FDA cleared as a class two surgical mask.
It is also cost effective, currently priced by the bookstore at $3.99. Clear masks are also available on Amazon and Etsy in various styles.
Sure, clear masks aren’t perfect—some fog up, they can get hotter than regular masks
, and they need to be wiped down after speaking for a whole class period. They also don’t address every communication issue that students with hearing disabilities face in this pandemic reality.
However, in at least some situations, they may be the difference between accessibility and inaccessibility, communication and miscommunication.
I wear one in my hybrid and in-person classes with the hope that all students, whether hearing-impaired or not, will be able to understand me at least a little bit better.
Like masks themselves, the benefit of wearing a clear mask is not for the wearer but for everyone else. Kutztown campus students and professors should consider adopting clear masks for their daily use.