‘Window’ Face Masks Help Kids with Hearing Loss Understand Their Care

While every child would prefer to see the full, smiling faces of their doctors and nurses when they come to Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) for an appointment, that’s not possible as CHOP requires everyone to wear a mask to keep us all safe from COVID-19.

But for some children, the typical face masks present a true barrier to a full, meaningful experience. Children with hearing loss, even those who use hearing aids or cochlear implants, rely on lip reading and facial expressions to understand what people are saying.

That’s why clinicians in CHOP’s Center for Childhood Communication (CCC) relentlessly searched for a type of mask with a clear window that showed their mouths and still met strict health guidelines outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

With the help of CHOP’s Supply Chain Department, a mask that met their criteria was located, and has been in use in the CCC since CHOP began inviting families to return for regular appointments. The special masks, called the Communicator, are also used by language interpreters who use sign language to help children and families who have hearing loss.

Before speech language pathologist Paula Barson, MA, CCC-SLP, saw one of her patients last month, the 13-year-old’s mother expressed a concern about whether they’d be able to communicate since Barson would be wearing a mask.

“When the patient saw that he could see my lips, he visibly relaxed,” Barson says. “During the evaluation, I noticed the patient intent on my face. I asked if the mask was distracting or helpful. He said it was so helpful and that he would not have done nearly as well without being able to see my mouth through the mask.

“This patient worries a lot during evaluations and is really hard on himself when he thinks he isn’t doing well. This mask truly helped put his mind at ease and to make the testing process so much more manageable.”

When audiologist Travis Conrad, AuD, CCC-A, recently fit a hearing aid on 14-year-old girl with sensorineural hearing loss, he wore the special mask.

“The Communicator mask made our discussions and conversations throughout the appointment much easier,” Conrad says. “Everyone involved could sit back and listen with the aid of visual cues, instead of focusing all their energy straining to hear through a normal mask. We have been very pleased with the huge improvement in communication when using these masks, and look forward to using them with many of our patients with hearing impairment.”

American Sign Language interpreter Bridget Morina-Meyer, NIC, understands that sign language involves the entire body and face – not just the hands – to add meaning to the message being conveyed. Children who use sign language become very skilled at reading facial expressions and lip movements.

She recently interpreted for a 17-year-old young man who was diagnosed with a serious heart condition who had been unaware of what had happened to him thus far. She interpreted as he learned about the gravity of his situation and that he may need a transplant.

“It was a very serious and difficult conversation for the patient, the family and the providers,” Morina-Meyer says. “When I walked in with the facemask that had the clear panel, everyone ooh-ed and aah-ed. The patient mentioned how much he liked the facemask. The providers working with him noticed what a difference it made in his understanding and involvement in this challenging and emotional conversation.”

The Center for Childhood Communication is seeing patients for all services including hearing tests, audiology follow-up visits, speech-language evaluations, and speech-language therapy at the Buerger Center on Main Campus in University City and in CHOP Specialty Care Centers in King of Prussia, Exton, Bucks County, Brandywine Valley, PA, and Atlantic County, Princeton and Voorhees, NJ.

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