How One Military Spouse Is Making Masks for the Disabled Community

woman wearing a mask sewing
(Air Force Photo)

A lonely sense of isolation is among the many emotions people feel after months of stay-at-home orders and wearing face masks in public.

Danielle Lee Loera, the spouse of a technical sergeant at Travis Air Force Base, California, opened a window to a more hopeful perspective. She designed and produced masks with a clear covering that allows the wearer's mouth to be visible, helping them to communicate not only with words, but with emotions as well.

After seeing a friend's social media post of just such a mask, Loera, who has fashioned more than 900 masks since the COVID-19 pandemic began, said she was inspired to make some with a transparent cover over the mouth.

"I loved the idea of a window mask," she said recently via email. "I was immediately enamored with the idea of being able to see facial expressions, and I recognized, in my own life, just how important a smile is."

Her initial motivation was to make masks that allowed lip reading. The high school she attended was the only one in its district for those who are deaf or partially deaf, and she studied American Sign Language. Helping the hearing impaired is an issue she takes to heart, she said.

"I know that facial expressions and lip reading are as much a part of the language of sign as the hands," she added.

One recipient of Loera's inclusive masks was Tracy O’Banion, a Fairfield, California, resident, who was eager to share how happy she was to receive the masks. The two connected via social media after Loera posted a photo of herself wearing the window mask. Within days, the two connected, and O’Banion had a fresh supply of masks. 

woman wearing a mask where you can see her mouth
(Air Force Photo)

O'Banion said the masks are beneficial in communicating with her husband, who retired as a master chief petty officer after 30 years with the Coast Guard. She said the window mask has also helped at health care appointments and in other situations.

"Hearing people are not as affected by wearing a mask in their daily lives as deaf folks are," she said. "Just imagine people talking behind a mask, and [you] not being aware of anything they are saying. The windowed mask lets me lip read and gauge a person's emotions."

"Also, I like to know if people are smiling or not," O'Banion said via text message, adding a smiley emoji.

O'Banion said her masks help her feel more connected to others.

"I'm so grateful Danielle made these," O'Banion said. "It was so thoughtful, and she really understands the isolation deaf folks feel due to so many people wearing masks these days with the [coronavirus]."

Loera said the masks can also benefit more than just the hearing impaired. Although Loera's initial inspiration was lip reading, she has found that the masks serve a plethora of purposes.

"A very good friend of mine has an autistic son, and, like the hard of hearing, he is learning to read facial expressions," she said. "She has ordered masks, not for her son, but for herself and his teachers to aid him on his learning journey."

woman wearing mask where you can see her face
(Air Force Photo)

Loera said the masks are made with cotton fabric with a heavyweight, vinyl material with anti-fogging technology that is free of bisphenol-A, also known as BPA, an industrial chemical used to make hard, clear plastics. Loera's masks also follow guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. She said each mask takes about seven minutes to make.

"My pattern conforms to the face and the nose and has a window," she said. "The vinyl window acts as a filter, and it can go all the way around the ears. The straps are important, not only for comfort, but also because many hard-of-hearing and deaf people have hearing aids and implants already there. I wanted to accommodate hearing aids while also keeping it comfortable for the user."

Loera's husband, John, whom she praised for his support, is a flight engineer with the 9th Air Refueling Squadron at Travis Air Force Base.

"He doesn't know how to sew very well, but he has ironed, cut and pinned more masks than I can count," she said. "He's had my back in this, financially, emotionally and physically — because we both have the same goal: help as many people as we can, because we have the ability and drive to do so."

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