We ran across this case and thought it might be of interest to our clients at GroupOne Background Screening. Last summer, Nike retail stores, like almost all businesses in the U.S., began requiring its employees to wear masks to combat the spread of COVID-19. A few weeks later, Cali Bunn entered one of its San Diego stores to purchase shoes. Ms. Bunn is deaf and relies on her ability to read lips to communicate.
Ms. Bunn promptly sued Nike in federal court in California (Bunn vs. Nike Inc.), claiming violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Ms. Bunn argued the cloth and surgical masks worn by Nike employees caused communication difficulties because they “muffle sound and conceal the wearers’ mouths and facial expressions.”
Nike settled the lawsuit last month, agreeing to provide transparent masks as well as pens and paper to its employees so they could more easily communicate with deaf and hearing-impaired customers.
Riding to the rescue is the Ford Motor Company, announcing on Tuesday that it had created clear face masks so people with hearing loss could read lips while protecting themselves from COVID-19. A patent is pending, awaiting federal approval to qualify for N95 status from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. The masks are expected to be available this spring.
According to Fizz Izagaren, a pediatric doctor in England who has been legally deaf since the age of two, it’s almost impossible to communicate with people wearing face masks.
“I can hear one or two words but it’s random, it makes no sense,” she said in an interview with the BBC News. “When someone is wearing a face mask, I’ve lost the ability to lip read and I’ve lost facial expressions – I have lost the key things that make a sentence.”
According to the World Health Organization, it’s a problem she shares with more than 466 million people around the world who have disabling hearing loss.
Part of the guidance issued by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) on Thursday included a recommendation “that employers consider acquiring masks with clear coverings over the mouth for all workers to facilitate lip-reading for employees who are deaf or have a hearing deficit.”
The trend towards transparent masks appears to be growing. In November, The Wall Street Journal released a report showing the Remington-based company ClearMask had sold 12 million transparent masks over the last seven months.
Transparent face shields would seem to be an obvious alternative, but they are open at the bottom and not recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) “for normal everyday activities or as a substitute for cloth face coverings.”
Under Title III of the American with Disabilities Act (ADA) in the U.S., entities such as hospitals, businesses and nonprofit organizations are required to provide effective accommodations upon request, including auxiliary aids, with transparent face masks considered an auxiliary aid.
Many companies, according to Infection Control Today, store a supply of transparent face masks to be used when communicating with employees or customers who are deaf or have a hearing deficit.