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How window face masks can help those with hearing challenges and others communicate

As many as 40 million Americans are impacted by hearing challenges according to Dr. Sandra Gabbard, President and CEO of the Marion Downs Center.

DENVER, Colorado — With at least two more weeks of the state's face cover mandate, families, schools, and businesses are finding the window face mask a solution to communication barriers.

Traditional face coverings can decrease sound "by as much as 25 decibels which is a lot, some only decrease it by five to ten," Dr. Sandra Gabbard, President and CEO of the Marion Downs Center, told 9NEWS.

At the Denver-based nonprofit, Dr. Gabbard supports people with hearing loss and communication challenges.

According to Dr. Gabbard, 15% of all adults have some degree of hearing challenges.

In the time since the CDC recommended the widespread use of face coverings to help slow the spread of COVID-19, Dr. Gabbard has seen an increase in individuals complaining of hearing loss. 

"Some people are coming in with mild hearing loss which wasn’t bothersome before people started wearing masks," Dr. Gabbard said.

One reason for the surge of complaints is masks tend to block higher pitches and sounds needed for clarity like 'sss' and 'shhh'.

"If you have a barrier to hearing those sounds, you may miss them even if you have pretty good hearing because they’re so soft to begin with," Dr. Gabbard told 9NEWS.

In addition to muffling critical sounds needed for communication, traditional face coverings block visual cues many people don't even realize they register during conversations.

"We know that people with hearing loss can benefit by 30% or 40% of speech understanding by watching. We also know that people with good hearing also benefit by watching not just lip movements but also facial expressions," said Dr. Gabbard.

The window face mask is intended to provide some relief. 

It has a clear panel over the mouth which cuts down the muffling effect and gives an unobstructed view of the mouth of the person speaking. 

The Marion Downs Center has made hundreds of them for use in families, schools, and businesses. 

Geoff Goodside, who has hearing loss himself, is advocating for all essential businesses to have at least one window mask on hand at all times. 

"It would mean the world to me because I wouldn’t have to stress out about my mask and how people are hearing me and how I’m getting where I need to be when I got out into the community or when I’m shopping for my family and I need help," Goodside told 9NEWS.

The husband and father does have access to sound but relies heavily on his hearing aid and lip reading to communicate. 

Not only do traditional face coverings hinder his ability to lip read but they also disrupt his hearing aid.

"It made my hearing aid staticky, it ran into my hearing aid, it made my hearing aid feel bulky," Goodside said.

Credit: Geoff Goodside
Geoff Goodside found a traditional face covering not only made lip reading impossible but also disrupted his hearing aid.

Governor Jared Polis' statewide mask mandate says "Individuals who are hearing impaired or otherwise disabled or who are communicating with someone who is hearing impaired or otherwise disabled and where the ability to see the mouth is essential to communication," are exempt from the requirement. 

Neither Goodside nor Dr. Gabbard feels this is the best solution to address communication barriers imposed by face coverings.

"Obviously, we have concerns about people taking masks off even if it’s to enhance communication," Dr. Gabbard said.

When asked about calls for window masks to be required in Colorado's essential businesses, a spokesperson for the Governor said, "the mask mandate is not meant to interfere with the needs of people who are hearing impaired, and we applaud those businesses who are making accommodations for customers where appropriate."

Required or not, Goodside told 9NEWS the use of the window masks in essential businesses "would go a long way."

At the very least, he's asking everyone to be mindful and have patience when communicating.

"Just be aware. If you identify that someone is hearing impaired, if they’re using sign language, that business should take the time to get to know that customer's needs and help make the process easier," Goodside told 9NEWS.

RELATED: Gov. Polis extends statewide mask mandate through Sept. 13

RELATED: Which types of masks are most effective for preventing the spread of COVID-19?

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