IOWA CITY — When Abby Lewis’ daughter Olive, who is deaf, has trouble understanding her, Lewis often points to her own mouth and overemphasizes her words’ syllables.
It’s something she does especially when Olive’s bilateral cochlear implant is turned off. A few days ago, for example, Lewis tried to explain to Olive that her dad was out buying a dresser for their new house.
“At first, she thought I said ‘dress’ — she thought she was getting a new dress because she’s a 4-year-old,” Lewis said. “So I emphasized ‘dress-er’ with my mouth, and she got it.”
Olive hasn’t interacted with many people since the coronavirus closed her day care and canceled preschool at Lucas Elementary in Iowa City.
But as Iowa starts to reopen, and face masks become more ubiquitous, the masks could complicate her ability — and that of other deaf or hard-of-hearing individuals — to communicate.
Face masks with clear, vinyl paneling in front of the mask could solve that problem.
The Grant Wood Area Education Agency — which provides services to at least 200 deaf or hard-of-hearing students in Eastern Iowa — is hoping seamstresses will craft and donate such masks.
The agency is promoting a mask pattern developed by a Kentucky college student. If masks are donated, the AEA would distribute the masks free of charge to deaf or hard-of-hearing students and their families.
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The pattern for the mask — with vinyl covering a cutout for the mouth — is available online at instagram.com/dhhmaskproject. Anyone can send completed masks to the AEA at 4401 Sixth St. SW in Cedar Rapids.
The agency would wash the masks before distributing them, and extras will be donated to the HACAP food pantry.
The way someone moves their mouth is a huge piece of American Sign Language, said Kim Lestina, who’s taught deaf and hard-of-hearing students, including Olive, through the AEA for 31 years.
“You can expand (the mouth) for additional meaning and emphasis,” she said. “It provides intensity, along with your body language. Putting all that information together is critical for that total message.”
Lewis, a nurse who described herself as “not crafty,” said the homemade masks would come in handy when she’s finally able to reschedule an appointment at Olive’s audiologist.
“This will be so important for her and other people that are deaf and hard of hearing,” she said. “It really is so important to visualize the mouth for communication with her.”
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