What the World Has Done to Make Masks Communication-Friendly

By: Cheryl Lu, Social Media Coordinator

Since the end of May, Canada has officially suggested wearing face masks as an effective way to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Earlier in June, the WHO also raised a similar suggestion on the use of masks in public. Masks, whether we are willing to admit it or not, have become one of the phenomena representing the year 2020.

Along with the masks though, there came the concern over their impediment on interpersonal communication. Many people who have studied languages, linguistics, and the ways people communicate with each other found that wearing masks could heavily reduce the effectiveness of verbal information exchange. In 2013, Kelsi Jo Wittum from The Ohio State University presented a paper on how masks worn by surgeons in operating rooms may result in mistakes and additional risks to patients’ health.

For years, people have been discussing how muffled sounds and not being able to read lips added barriers to the deaf community and those suffering from even just minor hearing loss. Earlier this year, an article was published after the COVID-19 outbreak, pointed out that for people who speak English (or any other language) as a second language, the inability of reading facial expressions added to their challenges and increased listeners’ lack of empathy. Various news articles also showed that with the presence of a mask, decoding non-native speakers’ accents became a harder task. In fact, the negative impact that masks have on verbal communication is so strong, that some introvert netizens listed it as one of their perks (!): no more small talk with people with whom you don’t feel like socializing.

Talented human beings have also have been searching for solutions to this problem. The concept of a transparent surgical mask was first proposed by an American nurse some 30 years ago to ensure people can see each other’s lip movement. Decades later, clear masks are no longer a myth and academic experiments have proven their effectiveness: they do make a big difference to the deaf community.

People around the world, coincidentally, came up with similar ideas.

In Indonesia, a couple started their transparent mask business for the local people.

In Italy, a company called Dienpi mass-produced surgical grade transparent masks. These masks are washable, medically-certified to be safe to wear in operating rooms, and are marketed as being “smile-friendly,” with attention drawn to humanism in health care and other professional settings.

In China, clear masks are not yet mass-produced, but were already used in news conferences by sign language interpreters. The interpreter, who custom-made the mask herself, said the one she wore was the fifth modified version to ensure the clear window was big enough, didn’t interfere with the user’s breathing, stick to the user’s face, or hinder the view with the folded creases.

In Japan, as public places gradually reopen, a swimming pool owner invented a vinyl mask for swimming instructors to wear inside the pool while teaching. The mask adheres to the wearer’s face at the top and leaves an opening under the chin to allow air circulation even when it’s wet.

And in America, a programmer designed a mask that detects its wearer’s voice and shows facial expressions when the lips move to talk. The mask has a built-in battery and LED lights. What’s even better is that it can also generate a green LED smile.

The programmer was also kind enough to post a DIY guide for more people to enjoy the fun.

Nowadays, a simple online search for transparent masks can generate heart-warming stories all over the world, and masks that are communication-friendly are benefitting people with impaired hearing and limited language fluency in various cultures and countries. Living in an era when the language rights and needs of minority communities are not neglected during a global health crisis, quoting what Charles Dickens once wrote, it is the worst of times, it is the best of times.


Further reading: other innovative types of masks created during the pandemic.

American UV-Light mask that are supposed to self-disinfect with built-in ultraviolet light.

Japanese washable cooling mask for summer, with swimsuit fabric and replaceable cooling patches.

Chinese disposable cooling masks, with two years’ storage life and technologies originally used to produce cooling sanitary pads exported to tropical countries.