Given the spread and nature of the COVID-19 pandemic, masks have now become an integral part of our “new normal.”
Since most masks typically completely hide the user’s mouth, individuals within the hearing-impaired community cannot read lips. FIU Architecture student and Tikkun Olam Makers (TOM) fellow Sophia Neves, along with volunteers, is doing her part to change that. Together, they created a virtual mask sewing festival to make transparent masks.
TOM Global is an international group of communities that are focused on creating and distributing affordable solutions for persons living with disabilities, the elderly and the poor.
“The virtual mask sewing festival goes to the heart of we mean when we use the term CARTA Cares,” said John Stuart, executive director at Miami Beach Urban Studios. “She and her team, through this event, were helping the world be a better place. And that’s what it’s all about.”
The first-ever virtual sewing festival was held last month in conjunction with the OpenStyle Lab, a nonprofit organization dedicated to making accessible styles for all persons regardless of cognitive and/or physical abilities. It was open to the general public—anyone with sewing skills and a sewing machine.
Each participant received a kit from the group through delivery and pickup at the Paul Cejas School of Architecture building. Each kit included fabrics as well as supplies, and each participant had access to various transparent mask templates that they followed during the festival. The materials were openly sourced, and all fabrics were donated to the event by Rex Fabrics, Linda Fabrics, La Casa de las Viejas and Miami Fabrics.
“This public event was a way to build a product and have a discussion session on the design,” Neves said. “Our masks come from open-source designs available on tomglobal.org, and we collected in-kind donations from local stores to make these material kits.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, clear masks or cloth masks with a clear panel are alternative style masks, specifically for people interacting with people with different hearing, speech and language difficulties. Persons using these types of masks, however, are asked to ensure that they can breathe easily; excess moisture does not collect on the mask; and that the masks are removed before sleeping so there are no hindrances to breathing.
More than 20 volunteers participated in the festival for approximately one hour. Throughout the event, they discussed and gave suggestions to one another on how the masks could be improved and how to prevent issues with ear loops and fogging within the mask.
The collaboration was key in making the event a success. FIU’s Disability Resource Center (DRC) joined the festival by assisting in promotions and serving as an additional pick-up location. Staff members and students from DRC also participated in the virtual sewing festival.
“DRC is always looking for ways to support FIU students in their endeavors to be more inclusive and bring awareness of the disability experience and issues affecting our community,” said administrative assistant and scholarship coordinator for DRC Yesenis Garcia. “It felt great to see a group of problem solvers work together to support this need and think of how to creatively [ensure] differently-abled people are included.”
Garcia has seen that there is a larger need for support for those relying on lip reading and how this was a great opportunity to meet that need. In addition, this initiative indirectly benefits persons of all abilities.
“Things like a simple smile or conveying expressions are lost in the confines of our masks,” Garcia said. “The pandemic is hard as it is, and taking a small step to show others we are welcoming and embracing of their differences can positively impact their experience.” After the event, the participants donated their newly created masks to the Hearing and Speech Center of Florida and any other individuals they are aware of who are in need.