Masks and Face Shields are becoming the norm – let’s design them for all humans

Masks and Face Shields are becoming the norm – let’s design them for all humans

Masks and shields have become a hot commodity in Australia and around the world this year. Now we have consensus that masks and shields are needed to reduce COVID-19 infection rates, the debate has moved to: what kinds of masks or shields and for whom?

Manufacturers are furiously producing traditional masks and shields to meet the fresh demand. But there is a shortage of medical face masks and we need them for the front line. The most common masks, whether reusable or disposable, simply don’t cover the needs of everyone. This leaves many people missing out or exposed – especially those with special needs. In Australia, masks have been traditionally used in the medical profession but now we are using them for something else.

The good news is, there’s innovation coming from the community itself. In recent months, we’ve seen local innovations and customised designs go from being laughed at to being hailed as brilliant and even government endorsed. 

‘Going without’ a mask or face shield isn’t an option – who is being left out?

(see list at end)

Many who struggle to wear a mask or face shield are also amongst the most vulnerable to infections. This means that medically, turning up in public in a highly infected area without a mask or face shield is not a good option. In addition, as Victoria moves to wearing a mask or face shield at all times when out, many of us struggle. In New York, where masks are the new normal, people can be seen lifting their mask off their face to be understood. Those of us who wear glasses have struggled as many masks can fog up the lenses. 

Those who require a variation in the design include: people with different communication needs including the deaf and hearing impaired, those for whom anxiety, sensory factors, visibility, smell and epilepsy are factors, those with skin sensitivities or vision factors such as glasses, people with breathing and accessibility challenges and those with mental health concerns as well as children.

Move over MacGyver – Examples of innovation from the edge users:

Edge users who have been excluded by the design of the blue medical face masks have spent the last couple of months innovating, testing and sharing updated designs to suit their needs and ours. 

At the start of the pandemic, some Aboriginal communities were forced to make their own masks or face shields when supplies were limited – they provided a glimpse into what was to come of the recent innovations in home made face coverings which are now being hailed as genius. 

Below are just some examples, and there are others. 

A boy with a mask and hat on. His mask is looped around buttons attached to his hat instead of his ears for comfort.
A young boy with autism experienced discomfort with the mask behind his ears, so his family used a button and hat to alter how the mask is secured to his face. 
A woman wearing a mask with a clear. plastic cut out so her mouth can be seen
A US college student Ashley Lawrence created a mask that was altered to include a see through barrier so that her mouth can be seen.  

Only months ago some laughed at those entering supermarkets using plastic bottles and welding visors as face shields. Now we have government encouraging the option of an adjustable, transparent face shield, which can be created by almost anyone using materials you can get from a local hardware store. The self producible face shield pattern below was designed by Prof Dimity Pond, and CfID partner and academic Dr Zi Siang See, Wooi Har Ooi (Haireena). They started with the idea of producing shields that could be 3D printed but ended up with a shield that could be designed with products from a stationary or hardware store.

A diagram breaking down the make up of the face shield with instructions.

These are examples of Inclusive Design at its best and its most human.

We need to pay attention to wisdom from the edge user. For years, Asian people have turned to face masks to protect the respiratory tract from pollution and infection, and to prevent the spread of any pathogens they might be carrying. People from these communities reported being ridiculed and teased for this choice. Now, we can see the importance of their perspective.

Here are some of the edge communities whose particular needs will allow for masks and shields that benefit us all: 

  • Trouble hearing: for whom the mandatory use of masks presents a significant communication barrier. Face coverings make it much harder to read facial expressions and lip read – critical tools for those with hearing loss. 
  • Making masks more comfortable – physically and emotionally: Some individuals cannot tolerate face masks – anxiety, sensory factors, visibility, smell and epilepsy are factors that can determine a person’s comfort in wearing a face mask. Autistic people have varied experiences, preferences and needs. 
  • Skin sensitivities: many with sensitive skin, skin conditions or allergies will find short or long term use of medical masks intolerable. This makes fabric and design an important feature.
  • Vision challenges: For people who wear glasses, a face mask can fog glasses and impair vision. 
  • Breathing challenges: People with breathing difficulties may have trouble with certain fabrics and materials. There are many different masks and shields that can work for different people. 
  • Mental health concerns: Some mental health issues make wearing a mask wearing problematic and triggering – those who experience PTSD, a face mask can trigger past trauma. Looking for designs that are different like the face shields can help.
  • Accessibility challenges: Others don’t have medical concerns, but need to remove their mask more frequently to allow for things such as more regular eating and drinking or to provide necessary identification. They need a mask or face shield that is easier to take on and take off and remains hygienic throughout.
  • Children: Whilst children under 12 years are not a current focus, there’s an opportunity to create masks that meet the comfort and emotional engagement needs of this young user group.

Have you got another example to share? Let us know by contacting us