Face masks can make connecting with others difficult. They obstruct nearly half the face making it impossible to intuit certain emotions and body language. But for those who rely on reading lips, like Michael Conley who has a condition called sound discrimination, it can mean an end of public communication altogether.
That’s where San Diego Opera costume designer Ingrid Helton comes in. Helton launched a business to create clear windowed masks so people can stay safe and read lips. But according to the Associated Press, at least half a dozen startups are producing similar masks. Clearly, there’s a demand for them.
It’s not just the 48 million Americans who are deaf or hard of hearing that needs the upgraded masks. Teachers want their ESL students to watch native speakers enunciate words, while hospitals and businesses want clients to see their workers smile.
“The issue for me is that I can hear sounds, but I can’t understand them. It’s called sound discrimination,” Conley told the Associated Press. “And so what I do is, I read lips. I grew up reading lips my whole life. And without seeing people’s facial expressions or reading lips, I can’t understand what they’re saying.”
Conley has since developed anxieties about completing tasks he could easily do before like going to the pharmacy or grocery store. Fortunately, he was introduced to Helton’s masks by his coworker, Chris LaZich, at the Fleet Museum.
LaZich essentially requested the masks on Conley’s behalf from Helton. The costume designer then created several prototypes to show her and from there Helton’s company Happy Laugh Masks began.
“I never asked for anybody to help me and there they went out on their own to do this. And it’s really great. It’s kind of one of the things that’s coming out of pandemics. People are being very, very supportive and helpful with each other,” Conley said.
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