Breaking down barriers, one mask at a time

For deaf and hard of hearing people in Kenya, one simple innovation is ensuring that masks protect them equally.
Four women stand next to one another in Nairobi, Kenya, as one holds up a transparent mask. A nun holding a bag of masks stands to her right.

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to rock countries worldwide, people have turned to the humble face mask for protection. For deaf and hard of hearing people, however, mask-wearing comes with its own challenges and risks.  

Wairimu, a sign language interpreter in Kenya, knows this all too well. Born with partial hearing loss and a speech impairment, Wairimu had years of speech and language therapy. Her mother was determined that Wairimu be part of mainstream society and arranged for her daughter to learn how to read lips, sign and improve her speech. 

Wairimu can now communicate through all these means. She is the official sign language interpreter in her community in Kiambu, a small town just outside Nairobi. But coronavirus has threatened to snatch all this away.

With everyone wearing masks to protect those around them, Wairimu could no longer read lips. Her limited hearing is not enough for her to make out what’s being said, particularly when it’s muffled by a mask. She was therefore unable to interpret for the Deaf community. As a result, the Deaf community around her lost their main channel of communication. 

A powerful partnership

It could have had serious consequences, but thanks to some quick collective thinking by disability champions in Nairobi, these difficulties gave way to a simple but transformative innovation.

It all started with Irene Kigathi of Tuleane Africa. A mother of a child with an intellectual disability, Irene gives training and support to children with learning difficulties. She reached out to Steve Njenga at Light for the World to see if he had any ideas on how to solve the problem Wairimu was facing. Together, they came up with a cost-effective solution: transparent masks.

Steve then brought in Sister Rose Catherine of Limuru Cheshire Home, a training centre for girls with intellectual disabilities. With Irene providing design and technical input, Sister Rose helped the girls and their teachers at Limuru make the masks. In the process, the girls added a new life skill to the many they learn at the centre to support their future financial independence.

Steve also called in Florence Waiyaki of Ear Trek, an institute that mentors children with hearing impairments. Ear Trek provided feedback and advice throughout the process, ensuring that the masks were fit for purpose. 

This powerful collaboration between disability inclusion leaders saw 500 masks produced within just a few weeks. 

A close-up of three face masks with clear plastic panels in the centre of each.
Five hundred of these transparent masks were produced in Kenya through a powerful collaboration between NGOs, including Light for the World. © Light for the World


A safer way to work 

Once the masks were completed in May, Steve donated them to Ear Trek’s community of hearing-impaired youth and their care-givers. As Ear Trek’s sign-language interpreter, Wairimu also received one.

Up to that point, she’d often had to ask people to remove their masks so that she could read their lips – leaving her vulnerable to contracting coronavirus. The new masks, however, have clear plastic rectangular patches that allow lip reading and more visible facial expressions, meaning that Wairimu can do her job without sacrificing her safety. 

The transparent masks have made a difference to others in the community as well. “It may seem like a small solution but it is a huge help for us,” says Lucas Wanjiru, a young person with a hearing impairment. “This is one of the very many initiatives required to achieve a barrier-free society." 

A young man with a specially adapted transparent mask hanging from his neck sits outside a building in Nairobi, Kenya.Lucas Wanjiru, with one of the new transparent masks that are transforming communication during COVID-19 for people with hearing loss. © Light for the World