Students display smiles amid pandemic protection

Special to Western News

Taylor Bardell, left, and Matthew Urichuk have produced and given away more than 130 Smile Masks, designed to help people who lipread or are hard-of-hearing.  Submitted photo

Don’t let a face covering keep you from expressing yourself.

Developed by a pair of Western students, Smile Masks are partly transparent face coverings that allow the wearer to speak, emote and make themselves understood by people who need to both see and hear you.

Taylor Bardell and Matthew Urichuk, both in combined Masters/PhD programs in the School of Communication Sciences and Disorders, conceived of Smile Masks soon after the pandemic started.

“We were going grocery shopping early on in the quarantine and we found it pretty difficult to understand each other through our masks,” Urichuk said.

That led them to wonder how lip-readers and people with hearing loss might be managing.

“We started playing around with prototypes and came up with this,” Bardell said.

The non-medical masks look like conventional masks, except for the mouth area, which has transparent ‘vinyl fabric’ where cloth would ordinarily be.

While a lot of people do a double-take upon seeing the pair, response has been overwhelmingly positive. “People are saying, ‘I really miss seeing people’s smiles.’ I was at a store and somebody said, ‘That’s so great. I’m hearing impaired and I can tell what you’re saying,’ ” Bardell said.

Since then, they have set to work making more masks – more than 130 so far, in two sizes – which they give away when someone sends a request to their email account, smilemasksproject@gmail.com, or Facebook page. Recipients so far have included families, teachers, physicians and clinicians.

They have also produced a YouTube tutorial showing people how to make masks of their own.

Bardell and Urichuk don’t charge for the masks or for shipping but they have set up a GoFundMe account for donations to offset the cost. “We really didn’t want anyone’s financial situation to affect their ability to get one,” Bardell said.

It has become something of a cottage industry, with two sewing machines on the go most evenings.

“First we took over the kitchen table and there was stuff everywhere,” Bardell said. “Now, we’ve expanded to a couple of folding tables, with pieces in various stages of assembly.”

That’s all in addition to their studies. “We research during the day and make masks at night. The outpouring of support has been incredible,” Urichuk said.