B.C.-based company partnering with non-profit to provide face shields to deaf, hard of hearing community

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Initiative aims to overcome communication challenges posed by traditional personal protective equipment

One of Tinkerine's employees shows a face shield for the deaf, in front of more boxes of face shields
Photo provided by Tinkerine

In response to COVID-19, two B.C.-based organizations are producing face shields, a type of personal protective equipment (PPE) that helps deaf and hard of hearing individuals communicate effectively. 

Tinkerine, a 3D printing and educational technology company, and Wavefront Centre, a non-profit that supports the deaf and hard of hearing community, formed their partnership in late April in response to concerns that traditional PPE limits aspects of communication that deaf and hard of hearing people rely on.

Nicole Leung, a registered nurse from Vancouver who is hard of hearing and uses a Tinkerine-Wavefront Centre face shield, emphasized the challenges of communicating when others are wearing masks.

“Communication is so key to our daily lives,” said Leung. “Deaf and hard of hearing people need to visually see people in order to communicate.” 

Face shields provide a transparent barrier to protect the wearer from coronavirus droplets, while allowing for more effective communication. More common types of PPE, like face masks, which obscure the nose and mouth, muffle sound and prevent people from using lip reading and facial expressions to fill gaps in auditory communication. Face shields are intended to mitigate some of these challenges for deaf and hard of hearing individuals and those working with them.

When Wavefront Centre reached out to them, Tinkerine was already producing face shields for hospital use. After hearing Wavefront Centre’s concerns that traditional PPE was not practical for deaf and hard of hearing individuals, Tinkerine CEO Eugene Suyu was convinced a partnership was an “obvious fit.”

“Just because they don’t work inside the hospital doesn’t mean that they should be forgotten when it comes to the protection,” said Suyu. “Especially because they can’t use face masks properly, they’re even more vulnerable if they don’t have that layer of protection.” 

For the partnership, Tinkerine produces face shields that are nearly identical to the ones they make for hospitals, save different-coloured clips and a Wavefront Centre logo. These face shields can be purchased by anyone, and 20 per cent of the proceeds goes to Wavefront Centre. Individuals can also pay for a face shield to be donated to the Centre — Tinkerine will provide the face shield free of charge and 20 per cent of the proceeds will still be donated. 

Leung received a donated face shield after being contacted by Wavefront Centre, where she has used services in the past. In general, she has found it provides good coverage and is comfortable to use.

In addition to producing face shields for hospitals and Wavefront Centre, Tinkerine is considering how their face shields might be used to provide protection to medical professionals and other service providers as the economy begins to reopen. 

“We want to ensure that everyone gets the protection that they need in order to serve their customers, in order to serve the community they are currently working within,” said Suyu.

Tinkerine is also looking beyond face shields, though they are doing so carefully. They have considered producing nasal test swabs and ventilator splitters, but want to focus on where they can be most effective.

Accordingly, Tinkerine is looking to expand their support for the deaf and hard of hearing community. Suyu sees the next step in Tinkerine’s production of face shields for the deaf and hard of hearing to be protecting the whole community across Canada. To pursue this, Tinkerine staff have reached out to other organizations like Wavefront Centre across the country. 

“It makes a lot of sense to make sure that everyone across Canada gets accessibility to communication through a face mask, especially if they’re deaf or hard of hearing,” said Suyu.

Like Suyu, Leung emphasized the importance of accessible communication. Though the current partnership focuses on the deaf and hard of hearing, Leung also pointed out that others who rely on visual aspects of communication, like non-verbal autistic people and people learning a new language, are disadvantaged by traditional PPE as well.

Looking to the future, Leung hopes we will learn from the current challenges. 

“One day this will all be over,” she said. “Hopefully, we will come out of this experience taking what we’ve learned into something better for the future, especially [for] more disadvantaged individuals.”