Local women designing transparent masks to help the deaf communicate

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SAN DIEGO — Thanks to the coronavirus, one San Diego man now is forced to communicate solely using paper and pen. But that soon could change with the help of a stranger.

“Yes, it’s frustrating!” said Michael Conley, a local resident who is hearing impaired.

FOX 5 interviewed Conley in-person Friday, but had to text him questions since both parties were wearing masks.

“I read lips,” he said. “I’ve depended on reading lips my whole life and without being able to see people’s faces, I have no idea what they are saying. Not only that, I don’t even know if they’re speaking to me.”

Conley has been hearing-impaired since age 2. When the COVID-19 pandemic broke out earlier this year — and people began wearing protective masks — he knew he was in trouble. Luckily for him, a coworker reached out to Ingrid Helton who works for the San Diego Opera.

“I thought, ‘Wow, how do people communicate if they can’t read lips?'” said Helton, who has worked in the theater industry for more than 40 years.

Although she’s never met Conley, Helton wants to make his life a little easier. With sewing machines primed in front of them, Helton and daughter, Delpha, are developing a new set of custom masks. The pair want to create one with a transparent front where the mouth lines up.

Using the right elastic bands, and plastic material that won’t fog, the pair plan to create a combination that will allow the hearing-impaired to communicate while still wearing a mask. They are working on two prototypes and hope to have them finished in the coming days.

And they’ve noticed a biproduct of their creation: being able to see people’s smiles again.

“This is a hard time we’re living through,” Conley said. “And to be able to share any kind of emotional support is going to make a big difference.”

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