Feature   Defense News

Air Force Spouse Creates Face Masks for People With Disabilities

June 29, 2020 | BY Nick DeCicco , 60th Air Mobility Wing

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 sewing masks created for those with disabilities.
Mask Maker
Danielle Lee Loera sits at her sewing machine at Travis Air Force Base, Calif.. Loera designed and created a mask with a window to boost inclusiveness, allowing people to read lips and see facial expressions.
Photo By: Air Force
VIRIN: 200422-F-F3215-1002A

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.

A woman wearing a face mask gives the sign for “I love you.”
Sign Language
Tracy O’Banion says “I love you” in American Sign Language while wearing a face mask with a window. Danielle Lee Loera. Danielle, the spouse of a technical sergeant stationed at Travis Air Force Base, Calif., designed and sewed the mask. O’Banion, who is deaf, said the mask has helped her read lips and improved nonverbal communication.
Photo By: Air Force
VIRIN: 200605-F-F3215-1002A

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.

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.

Masks are displayed on a table.
Mask Display
Masks with windows sit on a table for display in base housing at Travis Air Force Base, Calif. Danielle Lee Loera, the spouse of a technical sergeant at Travis, has made more than 900 masks for service members at Travis and in the surrounding communities since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Photo By: Air Force
VIRIN: 200605-F-F3215-1001A

"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."

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.

A woman wears a face mask with a window over the mouth.
Window Mask
Danielle Lee Loera wears a face mask with a window that she designed at Travis Air Force Base, Calif. Loera went to a high school with students who dealt with hearing loss, inspiring her to design and produce masks that allow for lip reading and visible facial expressions.
Photo By: Air Force
VIRIN: 200518-F-F3215-1001A

"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."

(Nick DeCicco is assigned to the 60th Air Mobility Wing.)