SWAMPSCOTT — When Northeast Arc posted about the need for "smile masks," Jaren Landen of Swampscott thought this would be a job for her daughter, Ava.

Smile masks have a clear insert at the mouth so the wearer can show facial expressions and mouth movements, allowing them to better communicate with people who are disabled or hearing impaired. 

The idea of coming up with a design for a reusable smile mask appealed to Ava. The 17-year-old soon-to-be senior at Boston University Academy hopes to study biomedical engineering. 

Typical face coverings can make the wearer's voice difficult to hear, and can make lip reading impossible. They also make it hard for people who are deaf or hard of hearing to recognize nonverbal cues.

Ava studied some designs online and came up with a reusable mask with a sealed insert over the mouth that is both breathable and can be worn with a hearing aid. 

She used an anti-fog spray, used by divers to keep their scuba masks clear, to keep her masks from fogging up.

To make the masks, Jaren Landen put Ava in touch with seamstress Laura Ganz, who runs Slipcovers and More by Laura in Danvers. Ganz said she has stitched more than 1,600 masks for health care workers since the pandemic struck. 

Ganz and Ava worked together to come up with a pattern, and she stitched about 75 of them for Northeast Arc. 

"I love it," Ganz said of the clear masks. "They were a little bit trickier than the other ones." 

Last month, they delivered the masks to Northeast Arc's Hearing Impaired Service Team. They came in a variety of fabrics, including designs featuring seagulls, polka dots and the New England Patriots.

Ganz said the clear masks are a great idea.

"I think it will be great not just for the Arc or people with disabilities, but for teachers," she said. "I think this will be the future."

"We support a lot of people who are deaf and hard of hearing and they read lips," said Northeast Arc CEO Jo Ann Simons. Regular masks can hamper this kind of communication, she said.

Early on in the pandemic, they noticed some staff were pulling down masks to be able to communicate with those who were deaf or hard of hearing, which could become an infectious disease issue with COVID-19.

The organization was also using face shields, but Simons said it's unclear if they are as effective as masks at preventing the spread of the coronavirus.

Simons said masks with clear inserts have a broader applicability at Northeast Arc, as many employees work with children.

"Babies look at faces, so I think it's very important to have this in our tool box to be able to offer our staff and individuals," Simons said.

Another group, led by Julie Rainer Cummings, also made clear masks for Northeast Arc.

"We were calling them 'smile masks' because you can see someone smile," said Cummings, a board member of Northeast Arc and a sibling advocate for her sister, Lisa Rainer, who is deaf and lives in a Northeast Arc group home in Swampscott.

Cummings said they need the clear masks not so much for her sister, but for her caregivers to communicate with her.

"She was totally at a loss to see people's faces," Cummings said. 

Cummings got help from Lauren Sandham Brenneman, who made smile masks from fabric with American Sign Language on it that Cummings provided. Also pitching in was Marisa Cole, with help from Donna Charette Lambert and Wendy McManus Blake.

Ava said she was happy with the results of her clear mask design, and hoped they brought a smile to those at Northeast Arc.

"They couldn't wait to give them to the patients," Ava said.


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