Chandler student making deaf-friendly masks The Chandler Arizonan

Chandler student making deaf-friendly masks

Chandler student making deaf-friendly masks
City News

By Kevin Reagan
Arizonan Staff Writer

A Chandler student is sewing special face masks designed to help deaf people safely communicate with others during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Neil Pandey, a ninth grader at American Leadership Academy, hopes to make hundreds of masks that will help deaf individuals read lips and detect facial cues.

Not long after the pandemic began, Neil said his family started sewing masks and donating them to health care workers. But the teenager began wondering about the individuals who depend on reading facial expressions to communicate. 

Neil has taken classes in American Sign Language and learned how crucial it is for deaf people to see another person’s face to have a conversation with them.

“I understand and empathize with the communication challenges the community faces,” Neil said.

He found a template for special masks that have a see-through window stitched across the wearer’s mouth. Neil made a prototype with this additional feature and is gearing up to donate masks to local grocery stores and medical offices.

He hopes their employees will switch to the see-through mask whenever a deaf customer walks through the door, Neil said. 

Neil said the problem probably goes unnoticed by those outside of the deaf community.

“All of us are going through challenges during the pandemic that we have never faced before,” Neil said. “The hearing impaired have to deal with additional communication challenges on top with the masks.”

The National Association of the Deaf has been  outspoken about the unique challenges impacting hearing-impaired citizens in the pandemic.

Howard Rosenblum, the association’s chief executive officer, said the deaf community’s access to health services has become increasingly difficult because some of the nation’s hospitals are not allowing sign language interpreters to accompany deaf patients.

“This makes it difficult for us to have communication access at the hospital,” Rosenblum said. “There have been some hospitals that allow interpreters in but do not provide them with any personal protective equipment.”

A lack of protective gear for interpreters jeopardizes their health and may scare them from the assignment, Rosenblum added, leaving the deaf to fend for themselves.

The NAD recently drafted an advocacy letter that warns members that they need to prepare for a scenario where they won’t be able to read the lips of their health care providers.

“Most doctors and nurses in hospitals now wear masks and gloves and may talk to you from behind a window or curtain,” the letter stated, “so it may be harder for you to understand them.”

Some manufacturers have been producing masks with windows across the mouth, but demand for these specialty products appears to be outpacing supply. One supplier doesn’t expect to have these masks in stock until at least August, according to its website.

Neil said he hopes his homemade will help fill the gap until more companies improve their manufacturing.

The high school student has essentially transformed his family’s home into a one-man assembly operation — cutting, measuring, and stitching several pieces of fabric atop his family’s dining room table. Neil utilizes laminated covers as the windows that are inserted inside the masks.

The whole operation took some time to figure out, he said.

Learning to use the sewing machine was intimidating at first, Neil said, but a little practice helped him nail down a rhythm to potentially make hundreds of masks.   

“My stitches used to be a lot more crooked than they are now,” Neil joked.

Neil is collecting donations through a page for fabric and supplies and any leftover funds may be spent on buying commercially-made masks, if or when they become available again on the market.

“I will keep on making the clear-windowed masks until the commercially-made masks become available,” Neil said.

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