Travers reached the desk and asked the teacher: “Could you lower your mask so I could read your lips?” His ability to hear gradually declined through his adult years because of a rare genetic disease called osteogenesis imperfecta, known as brittle bone disease. Beginning in 2008, after a cerebral hemorrhage left Travers in a coma for three weeks, he couldn’t hear at all. Travers relied exclusively on lip-reading until last month, when successful cochlear implant surgery allowed him to hear again.
But in the spring, when he left home on a mission to return with a laptop for 13-year-old Rylee, Travers still needed to read lips to communicate, and mask mandates suddenly took that ability away. At the school, he pulled out an index card on which he had taped a printed sheet of paper with the words: “Lip reader. Deaf/hard of hearing. Thank you.” The teacher wouldn’t remove her mask.
“I know people are hypervigilant about their safety, and they didn’t want to lower their masks,” Travers said. “I don’t fault them. That’s just the battle I was dealing with at that time.”
A parent in line realized why Travers was struggling. He removed his mask to tell Travers the information the teacher needed. That was a helpful solution, but Travers returned home frustrated, wondering whether similar scenarios would become common for those who can’t hear.
Travers’s wife, Erin, had taught him how to sew to make masks. She is a nurse in an intensive care unit and knew making face coverings out of cloth would be helpful.
The sewing machine, cloth and scissors had taken over the dining room table. In anger, Travers cut the mask he had worn that day. He then realized that was all he needed to read lips: a hole in the mask. That moment, spawned by the exasperation of a trip to the middle school, led to the endeavor that consumed his days that followed. Travers began making window masks — face coverings that can protect people in public but with a clear plastic rectangle that allows others to read their lips. Over the past couple of months, he has sold hundreds.
Travers had his implant surgery in May, and during the lead-up appointments he couldn’t hear the doctor as he explained the procedure. Travers’s wife would occasionally lower her mask to relay information. When designing the mask, Travers set a goal to have it finished by his first post-operation visit, a week after surgery. Travers didn’t want to be in the dark when they discussed any potential complications from the operation.
Travers tested masks with different thicknesses of plastic. He found anti-fogging spray online, as well as the homemade remedy of using a drop of dish detergent. It took a few weeks, but he had a final product complete the morning of his appointment. His wife wore that mask to the doctor’s office, and she said, “People were like, ‘My God, that thing is amazing.’ ”
At the appointment to activate his implants in June, Travers’s wife again wore the window mask. She held her hands over her mouth and said: “Can you hear me? You’re not reading my lips, are you?” Travers cried as he heard voices in the room.
“It’s almost like watching your child be born,” said Erin Travers, who married Brian in 2002, when he had hearing aids. “All I’ve known is him deaf and struggling to hear. Just the pure joy on his face when he could hear me say ‘I love you’ is indescribable."
He loves hearing his wife and children every day, the way that they can call his name and he’ll look. When he is outside, he hears unfamiliar sounds that he has to relearn. Travers said people sound “cartoonish.” He still reads lips, because that became his natural method of communication. Travers smiles when he can match what he sees to the words he hears. He doesn’t need his wife to wear the window mask anymore. But others do.
For people who can’t hear, the ubiquity of masks “makes them feel isolated,” said Brianna Kinney, who is Travers’s audiologist at ENT and Allergy Associates of Florida. “They can’t communicate on their own. So they’re relying on a loved one, which is very difficult. ... It takes away that independence.”
Travers posted a photo of his wife wearing a window mask in a few Facebook groups for people who are deaf and hard of hearing. His wife and stepson recently designed a website to streamline the ordering process. Travers, a stay-at-home dad, now spends most of his day sewing. He purchased a sewing book and learned about seams, thread and backstitching. He can make one of his window masks in about five minutes.
When people buy his masks, they sometimes include a comment that explains why they need one or how it will help in their everyday life. Many want to wear one for the same reason Travers’s wife did. They have family members who read lips. A school for the deaf ordered a batch for the upcoming year.
Others have joined in, too. Some schools have purchased window masks because they want students to see teachers’ facial expressions and watch their lips move. One Publix store employee wanted to wear one so customers could see her smile. Impressed by that gesture, Travers wrote a letter to her manager, which was shared widely on social media. Others who work for the grocery store chain followed suit — so many that Travers has a green mask on his website designed for Publix employees.
As someone who spent years becoming a keen observer of people’s expressions, Travers knows the masks have value beyond the transmission of language.
“Your smile is the door opener,” Travers said. “That’s going to make a person feel comfortable or not comfortable. So for me, the bottom line for this mask is communication, but it is communication through a smile.”
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