“Conversation Mask” Shows off Your Smile – Safely


Oregon Dept. of Human Services Supports Deaf and hard of hearing communities with the conversation mask

SALEM – It began with a conversation about how to help protect Department of Human Services (DHS) staff. That conversation, and many volunteer hours spent in research and sewing, lead to a different way to help people who are Deaf and hard of hearing: a conversation mask.

Sue Wilson is the executive director for the nonprofit Sustainable Living Center. During a conversation with neighbor and DHS Director Fariborz Pakseresht she learned that he wanted to find a way to get face coverings for DHS staff.

“After that discussion, a small group of us researched patterns and collected donations. By the next Monday we took in 100 prototype masks,” Sue said. “Fariborz shared them with DHS leadership and they were interested in more.”

Sue said they then reached out to the community beyond the neighborhood asking for volunteers to prepare and sew face coverings. The group provided completed face coverings as well as kits with material, fabric ties and instructions to DHS offices.

“We worked with Amy Church, volunteer coordinator at DHS, to find people who could sew,” Sue said. “Assuming all those kits were completed, more than 3,000 face coverings have been sewn for DHS.”

Need emerges for face coverings with clear inserts

Emily Armstrong, Vocational Rehabilitation (VR) strategic development and innovation officer, is the emergency management liaison for Vocational Rehabilitation. “I saw this as an opportunity to assist others during a time where I was feeling rather limited in my ability to provide any kind of support,” Emily said. She and other VR staff used the Sustainable Living kits to sew face coverings, then distributed them to VR offices.

“We were so grateful to partner with Sustainable Living to distribute pre-made face covering and kits,” Emily said. “And we quickly discovered a need for people who are Deaf and hard of hearing.”

“We’ve been hearing from Deaf and hard of hearing people on challenges they’d had communicating with face masks,” said Barbara Robertson, hard of hearing specialist with the Oregon Deaf and Hard of Hearing Services unit in the Aging and People with Disabilities program. ODHHS is a resource for all Oregonians to improve quality of life for Deaf and hard of hearing people and their families.

“From the perspective of a person who is hard of hearing, a face covering makes communication enormously difficult,” Barbara said. Facial expressions, which are an important part of communication, can be unfathomable when any part of the face is covered.

“We were starting to see masks with clear insets in them. I wondered if we could modify the pattern to help Deaf and hard of hearing people when others are using the facial coverings,” Emily said.

Pattern, instructions available to public

“Emily asked us for advice on making modifications to the design and we reached out to some of our quilters and sewers,” Sue said. “It was a great opportunity to collaborate and share what we knew and then to see her using that.”

“Barbara and I ordered some,” said Krista Gallagher, Deaf specialist with ODHHS. “I want to share mine with other people because those masks are more of a benefit to me to have other people using them.”

“After Emily adapted the pattern, she shared it with us,” Sue said. “We’ve passed on her pattern and instructions to help others.”

Emily’s face covering instructions are now publicly available on the VR COVID-19 web page. “Now anyone interested in a conversation mask can make one” Emily said.

About Author

Sherryll Hoar is a Communications Officer with the Oregon Department of Human Services.

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