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France Encourages Use Of Transparent Masks To Help Those With Hearing Loss


Face masks have helped slow the spread of coronavirus, but they've made communication difficult for the hard of hearing. People who read lips or rely on facial cues often struggle with everyday conversation. In France, the government is promoting what it sees as a solution to the problem. As NPR's Eleanor Beardsley reports from Paris, the French government has approved several models of transparent masks for public use.



MARGUERON: Come on. I'm Suzy.

BEARDSLEY: Suzy Margueron lost most of her hearing as a young girl. But with hearing aids and looking at people's faces, she gets by fine. Margueron says for those like her, the pandemic has been a double whammy.

MARGUERON: It's a drama for all the hard-of-hearing people. I can hear your voice, and I can understand you if you can read on your lips. But if you have a mask, I can't understand anything. It's horrible. I must guess. All the time, I must guess.

BEARDSLEY: Six million people are hard of hearing in France. That's 10% of the population. Most of the hard of hearing live with written and spoken French as opposed to the much smaller number of deaf people who use sign language.

Thank you for seeing me.

SOPHIE CLUZEL: Well, no. Of course.

BEARDSLEY: Sophie Cluzel is the French secretary of state in charge of disability issues. She greets me wearing one of the transparent masks the government is encouraging. It consists of a clear plastic panel stitched between two pieces of fabric. Breathable material covers the nostrils, but the mouth is visible.

CLUZEL: It's a protection, but it's also a communication tool. And now we have three of them which have passed all the tests and can be produced in France. And like this, we can equip, for example, teachers who have deaf pupils and speech therapists that need it. But also, for example, I'll need to see the smile when you are old.

BEARDSLEY: Cluzel says, for now, the transparent masks are expensive, around 10 euros, but they can be washed 25 times. And when production increases, prices will come down.


BEARDSLEY: Suzy Margueron, who advocates for people with hearing loss, likes to gather with friends in the Luxembourg Gardens, where they can take off their masks and speak freely. They say even health care professionals like pharmacists sometimes refuse to lift their masks. Francoise de Brugada says it's not just about reading lips.

FRANCOISE DE BRUGADA: All the muscles of the face and the eyes and the nose, the expressions, you can see all that moving. That makes you understand much more.


BEARDSLEY: Everybody here has a transparent mask, but they say it's others who need to wear them. Christophe Bertrand is trying to make that happen. His company, Simon, has patented a much cheaper transparent mask that costs between 25 and 40 cents. He's sold 25,000 of them but is waiting for EU health standards approval to market worldwide.

CHRISTOPHE BERTRAND: The principle of our conception is to have one sheet of transparent plastic in which the mask is prepared. The advantage to be manufactured out of only one single material is that our mask is also recyclable.

BEARDSLEY: Bertrand agrees that see-through masks are not just for the sake of the hard of hearing. He says by allowing people to see each other's faces, these masks help maintain the human connection needed to get through this pandemic.

Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eleanor Beardsley began reporting from France for NPR in 2004 as a freelance journalist, following all aspects of French society, politics, economics, culture and gastronomy. Since then, she has steadily worked her way to becoming an integral part of the NPR Europe reporting team.