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NEWS | May 1, 2020

Partnership overcomes facemask challenges for deaf and hard of hearing teammates

By Silvia Klatman, PSNS & IMF Public Affairs

Wearing facemasks is an essential part of minimizing the spread of COVID-19. A challenge people who are deaf or hard-of-hearing are now facing is that masks interfere with communication.

Marlene Bell, Puget Sound Naval Shipyard & Intermediate Maintenance Facility’s American Sign Language interpreter, understands those challenges first-hand.

“American Sign Language is not just about signing on the hands, it includes facial features that include grammar such as syntax and affect,” Bell explains. “For a hearing person, it’s as if a person’s speaking in a monotone voice and only being able to catch every other word.”

Bell points out that people should not have to choose between miscommunicating while wearing a mask for safety or effectively communicating, but possibly endangering the health of teammates. To avoid miscommunication recently, Bell had to distance herself during a meeting and then take off her mask to clearly communicate.

This incident inspired Bell to research mask options for those who are deaf or hard-of-hearing. She found a couple of options that could possibly work, then reached out to Shop 64’s Sail Loft and the Home Team Mask effort to see if they could help. The two groups recently celebrated a milestone of sewing 50,000 standard cloth masks. Bell asked if they could create masks with transparent plastic in the middle, making lips and facial expressions visible.

The answer wasn’t a simple, one-size-fits-all solution. To accommodate these individuals, more room is needed in the front to allow ones’ lips and facial expressions, and the chin needs to fit differently to avoid shifting the mask and chafing skin. Two sizes are needed for people with smaller faces and those with larger faces.

Kirk Brocksome, Department Security Coordinator, Code 900A, Production, went online and also found some options.

“I asked Marlene to make any modifications she thought might be beneficial,” Brocksome said.

He found different types of polyurethane plastic that could work, and paired that with the efforts of the Sail Loft and the Home Team Mask effort, a group led by Corinne Beach, PSNS & IMF STEM coordinator. Beach had been doing her own research and created a pattern from an online video. Less than 24 hours after receiving the initial request, three prototypes were ready to be tested.

The prototypes were tested on Bell using different fabric and elastics then adding various “windows” from the Sail Loft to determine which would work best. Two new patterns were created including one that was two inches larger than standard. The masks have clear polyurethane in the middle and two pipe cleaners to hold in place on the nose. The final prototype was successfully tested April 24 and production began that same day.

“It’s a little bit more difficult to sew,” noted Beach so each specialized mask takes a few minutes longer to make than standard ones.

Sean McCandless, an insulator with Shop 57, Pipe Insulation, is a former sail loft employee who is now teleworking and making other masks.

“Specialty sewing is right up my alley,” said McCandless, who sews between eight to 16 masks a day. He’s also developing instructions to share with other commands that have already expressed interest in making masks for their deaf employees.

Mask distribution began April 30. The goal is for each employee who is deaf to have three masks.

“These masks are different from the other ones that push up against your face,” signed Bell to the group. “These are designed with more room for movement creating a different feel that we need to get used to.“

Brandon Salley, an electrical worker with Shop 51, Electricians was the first to don the new mask. “At first, it is hard to figure out how to get it adjusted,” signed Salley. “There is a sweet spot, I think we got it.” 

The initiative showed a commitment to helping teammates and meeting a need that most hadn’t considered. Additional masks will now be made for those who work with teammates who read lips.

“Everyone was eager and on board to get me what I needed to do my job effectively,” said Bell. “I genuinely enjoy the people I work with here at PSNS & IMF. Many employees are willing to go out of their way to help with accommodations for our deaf and hard of hearing employees. I’m truly grateful.”