KINGSTON -- Wearing a mask has become part of every day life for many during the COVID-19 pandemic, and one couple near Kingston is trying to make the practice more inclusive.

A fully covered face mask can make communication difficult for the hard of hearing and deaf community.

Taylor Bardell, 23, and Matt Urichuk, 24, are students at Western University in London in the fields of audiology and speech pathology.

A shopping trip while wearing face masks changed their perspective.

“We were wearing typical fabric face masks, our first time going out shopping wearing them, and we were struggling to talk to each other, cashiers, and workers,” explains Bardell.

“Given our background, we just thought we work with these populations that may rely on lip reading,” says Urichuk.

“We just knew it’s just so much harder,” says Bardell. “If we’re having difficulty, if you really rely on lip reading, it’s just going to be so much more difficult.”

The couple started looking online for solutions, and started to try to make a few for themselves from their house in Arden, Ont., where they have been staying since the pandemic began.

“A lot of trial and error,” laughs Bardell.

But they finally settled on a pattern.

“The main thing for us and what we had to tweak the most was the size of the panel,” says Urichuk. “Just to make sure it was too big that you couldn’t breathe...but it was also big enough that you could still see your whole mouth.”

Some features they settled on include using shoelaces for ties as elastics can often be challenging for those with hearing aids or glasses to wear; and for a better fit universally.

They also say fogging was an issue, so the couple turned to dish soap, applying a small amount on the inside of the mask once a day.

Following the success, the couple began the "Smile Masks Project." They say they have made over 100 mask, many given out in the Napanee, Kingston and London regions.

But they’ve also had interest from across Canada.

“I think we were really blown away by the variety of people that have shown that they need a mask like this, so we’ve had teachers, doctors,” says Urichuk.

“We need as many people in the community wearing them, so that people who rely on lip-reading interact with those people wearing them,” agrees Bardell.

Canadian Hearing Services says over 530,000 people in Ontario are deaf or hard of hearing.

The organization also says that while more than one million adults across the country report having a hearing related disability, studies indicate more than three million Canadian adults may have hearing problems, as it is often under-reported.

Rex Banks, the director of audiology at Canadian Hearing Services, says the issue of communication is something he has heard about during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Banks says full fabric masks can block communication in a number of ways.

“Everything is just softer, so it’s harder to hear,” he explains. “Secondly, certain sounds are visible on the lips and now that people are wearing masks, deaf and hard of hearing people are missing out on those visual cues. Thirdly, your lips and your eyes often work together to communicate intent and tone, so now that type of information is only partially coming across in communication when someone is wearing a mask.”

Banks says while the association does not provide advice on personal protective equipment, he thinks face masks with a window can benefit those without hearing problems, as well.

“I personally believe a clear type of mask is a win-win for everyone involved because everyone is having trouble communicating while we’re wearing masks,” he explains. “So, getting across clear communication, making it so there are no miscommunications, is something we should all be concerned about.”

Bardell and Urichuk say they will continue with The Smile Mask Project as long as they can. The masks are free, but they have created a GoFundMe Page to help cover the cost of materials and shipping.

The couple also have a YouTube tutorial for those interested in making their own at home.

“We’re just really just encouraging people to be creative, to think of ways to overcome those barriers, and make masks,” says Bardell.