Deaf and hard-of-hearing organizations call for 'adequate' transparent masks

Several organizations representing the deaf and hard-of-hearing are calling on Quebec to provide early childhood centres (CPEs) and health centres with adequate masks featuring transparent windows.

In an open letter sent to the government, they deplore the province's cancellation of a call for tenders regarding "new masks with windows that are more effective and comfortable than those previously used."

"This reversal puts people with hearing loss in a difficult and frustrating situation," wrote Audition Québec, the Réseau québécois pour l'inclusion sociale des personnes sourdes et malentendantes (ReQIS) and the Association du Québec pour enfants avec problèmes auditifs (AQEPA).

Over the last few months, CPEs have been given transparent masks imported from abroad, to be used by educators. However, these masks remain unused because they are "inadequate" and "uncomfortable," according to comments collected by the signatory organizations. The masks reportedly fog up easily, transmit sound poorly and provoke allergies.

But a Quebec-made alternative is available. Entreprise Prémont in Louiseville, in the Mauricie region of Quebec, in collaboration with Audition Québec, has designed a mask with a transparent window that meets Health Canada's requirements.

"It is very comfortable. It doesn't fog up. It makes it a little more difficult to breathe, but if it's well installed, there's no problem. It's also hypoallergenic," says the president of Audition Québec, Jeanne Choquette.

She said some daycare centres have decided to purchase Entreprise Prémont masks for themselves.

Quebec cancelled the call for tenders because the already-existing quantity of window masks would restock the entire network for about four months, according to the government.

"In the interest of sound management of public funds, the CAG (the government procurement centre) must use up this reserve before issuing a new call for tenders. Nevertheless, a reflection is underway for the launch of a new public call for tenders," explained Esther Chouinard, spokesperson for the Ministry of Education, in an email to The Canadian Press.

While she understands that Quebec is looking to clear its inventory first, Audition Quebec's interim executive director, Julie Brousseau, urges the province to keep in mind that people are currently facing "a major communication breakdown."

Children are deprived of lip-reading and facial expressions, which are "essential to their language and socio-emotional development," the AQEPA echoes.

"Lip reading for a person with hearing loss can represent up to 40 per cent of additional information," says Brousseau.

Although recommended by Public Health and early childhood experts, the use of window masks is considered "optional," according to a statement from the Ministry of Families.

"Choosing a mask [...] must be done with the constant objective of ensuring the proper development of children. However, it is not required to wear them for a long period of time," adds Chouinard.

The signatories of the letter want the Ministry of Health to issue a call for tenders to equip its entire network with Quebec-made masks featuring transparent windows.

--This report was first published in French by The Canadian Press on Oct. 25. 

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