TAMPA — Mireya Beltrán learned how to sew from her mother in their native Toluca, a city in central Mexico.
The lessons helped show a young Beltrán, who was born deaf, that while the outside world was silent to her, this need not hold her back.
“It was not easy, but you get used to it and adapt to the circumstances."
Now, those skills from childhood are helping Beltrán survive the loss of her job and giving hope to hundreds of others also dealing with the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.
Beltrán, 42, worked in a local laundry and had to find a new way of helping support her family — husband William and children, Kenneth, 17, and Kevin, 15. They, too, are deaf.
She found a way during a chance meeting in early April with friend Patti Sánchez, 56, manager for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Employment Service at the nonprofit MacDonald Training Center in Tampa. The nonprofit helps people with disabilities of all kinds.
They talked about the absence of interpreters for the deaf and hard of hearing at widely viewed coronavirus briefings held by the White House and by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Beltrán, noting one news conference she saw where an interpreter wore a special mask, mused about making some of them herself.
Great idea, Sánchez said. What’s more, Sánchez told her friend, she could help, and even had a sewing machine at home for Beltrán to use.
“When we started telling our friends in the community that we were in this, it was like an earthquake,” Sánchez said. “We got 43 orders in less than 24 hours.”
These are no ordinary masks, featuring a stretchy, clear vinyl window enabling those who are hard of hearing to read the lips of the person speaking. The window is sewn into a cotton fabric frame. All the materials come from Gigi Fabric Store, a local business in Brandon. The owners donated the vinyl.
The masks are priced at $7 each, $30 for a box of five. They come in eight colors, including olive, navy blue, gray, purple and black. They can be washed with a baby hairbrush, soap and water, and reused.
Around the nation, similar masks are being turned out by manufacturing companies and volunteers. In Kentucky, a college student opened a GoFundMe account a month ago to make the masks. In California, a 17-year-old girl opened Talking Mask to produce the coverings and raise money for the hearing impaired.
For Beltrán, a mask can take 25 to 30 minutes to make. The material is difficult to work with and some customers require special measurements.
“Every day, we spend several hours making and designing the masks. ”
Orders have come from California, Connecticut, New York, Oregon, Virginia, Wyoming, Washington D.C., and Puerto Rico. The demand is high. An estimated 11 million people in the United States have some degree of difficulty hearing, according to the National Association of the Deaf.
“In three weeks, we have made and sold over 300 masks to different states and we are getting more orders,” Sánchez said. "This is much needed.”
Sánchez, who is of Puerto Rican heritage, lost her hearing when she was 7 to complications from measles and fever. She speaks English, American Sign Language and Spanish. To communicate her message during one-on-one meetings, she reads lips and interprets gestures.
But now, these techniques don’t always work.
“It is really a struggle for me and the deaf that depend on reading lips,” Sánchez said. “Everywhere I go, I have to type a text and show it to the people or store associates.”
The masks have helped.
One user, Jessica Bellingar, has been an interpreter more than 18 years for people who have difficulty hearing.
“They are not the only masks for interpreters and deaf in the market, but I definitely like them," Bellingar said. "These masks are more comfortable and have a bigger window.”
Beltrán finds mask-making to be a rewarding pursuit.
“Masks are something that we desperately need and will be continuing to use."
But the pandemic will end, she said, and she knows she eventually may need to find another way to make ends meet.
“I think we are going to get out of this," she said. “We shouldn’t have so many deaths.”
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