A chance conversation this week alerted me to the difficulty some people with low vision, particularly those with field loss, experience when trying to navigate while wearing a mask. In an article aimed at mask makers, Matt White, who is blind from birth, “began reading accounts from blind people on social media indicating that their sound-based spatial awareness seems to be compromised when wearing a mask. Blind mask wearers report having difficulty perceiving distances to objects, leading to unfortunate head-meets-pole incidents, among other oddities.” White reached out to a researcher friend who suggested “that olfactory spatial cues would be modified by masks (you don’t smell other people, e.g. perfume and cigarettes, until they are closer to you), as would any tactile cues from the face (like the warmth of the sun, or wind, on the face).” A quick internet search turned up ideas and information, but my hope for uncovering a new invention that provided the perfect solution faded. Reaching out to colleagues didn’t reveal much either. “We do not have any set answers but are experimenting as is the rest of the low vision community. Have tried drop in shields behind face mask for those who wear glasses.” “No magic fix; however, depending on the environment and surrounding people, some of my students pull down their mask…to keep their glasses from fogging up. I also instruct them to increase their scanning and be more proactive within the environment…The mask does reduce the vision in the lower fields – a cane would be helpful in this situation.” Back to the internet, undeterred, a deeper search turned up some useful information.
The Massachusetts Commission for the blind has published Five Face Mask Safety Tips. Their tips, along with those from many other sites, include advice to practice wearing the mask prior to venturing out and relying more heavily on your white cane or guide dog. Having a properly fitted mask is also critical, and some resources suggested trying different types and sizes of masks, though not those with filters, until you’ve found one that works well.
The Prevention of Blindness Society of Metropolitan Washington offered free cloth masks with a Checkered Eye symbol that identifies the wearer a person with low vision. “POB is teaching local businesses about the symbol and how their staff can interact with an individual with low vision.”
The symbol was designed by Libby Thaw of the Checkered Eye Project in Ontario, Canada. “The checkered eye itself is a simple line drawing of an eye, the center of which, the iris, is black and white checkers. The wearable symbol bears the Checkered Eye and the text “LOW VISION”. It has been translated to French, Spanish and Thai as well. The background is white, the outline, emblem and text are black.” The website cautions that wearing the symbol, whether as pin, patch, pendant or clothing safe sticker, should never be used to replace a white cane. The items are available for sale on the site along with downloadables like a sign to place on reserved seats.
Fogging glasses is a major problem when wearing a mask, and not just for those with low vision. Washing with soapy water and air or tissue drying, taping at the top of the mask, inserting a folded tissue or spraying with the type of anti-fog spray that is used by motorcyclists were all recommendations, but the easiest seemed to be: “Many have said that by simply putting their face covering on before their glasses, they’ve found that they’ve avoided their glasses steaming up. So, it can just be a case of putting your mask and glasses on in the right order.” (Tried this, it works when the mask is also properly fitted over your nose.) Additional tips available at rnib.org.uk
Bridges RC, the independent living center in Rockland County, NY, has a host of tips for people who are deaf blind, wearing a mask, and adhering to social distancing requirements. Bridges recommends tools from the National Association of the Deaf, including carrying a card for communicating with health care providers that states: “I am deaf/hard of hearing/deaf-blind. I do not understand you with your mask on. Here is my identification card/Driver’s License. Please speak into my smartphone. I am using it to understand you. Please respect my legal right to understand you and participate in my care by allowing me to use my smartphone.” A long list of apps to facilitate communication follows on the Bridges site.
Cheryl Murphy, O.D. writes, “It seems that as we exhale with a mask on only a limited amount of our breath passes forward through the mask, some air escapes through gaps in the masks on the bottom, the sides and perhaps most pronounced, through the top of the mask since it may not be secured close enough to our face because of our nose.” This can result in Mask Associated Dry Eye. “A properly fitted mask (with nose piece if possible), lubricating eye drops and frequent mask breaks can help to relieve dry eye.”