Design and technology unite for a good cause

A charity for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing and a 3D Printing company seem like an unexpected partnership, but during this pandemic they have come together to tackle community-based issues.

Tinkerine Studios, a technology and design company, is working on a surprising new project with The Wavefront Centre for Communication Accessibility, a charitable organization focused on eliminating barriers for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing communities. Tinkerine has created a clear visor face shield which allows those who are Deaf or Hard of Hearing to stay safe while also having access to communication. The company is donating both funds and shields to support the Wavefront Centre’s mission.

Pivoting design into community work

Eugene Suyu, CEO of Tinkerine Studios, did not set out to create solutions for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing community. He originally intended the company to be a business that sees education to “foster twenty-first-century skills sets.” However, during the pandemic as schools have had to shut their doors Tinkerine has pivoted into new territory. “We take design as a process to tackle real-life problems, and right now it is focused on the pandemic.” Suyu explains. “We started to look at where we could help, and a face shield became the immediate thing that we could service.”

Tinkerine first produced the clear visor face shields to help front line workers gain access to personal protective equipment (PPE), but quickly realized that a secondary benefit served a whole other purpose. “One thing that we didn’t realize when we were creating the face shields was that there was this whole community of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing that actually can’t communicate properly when the whole world has face masks on,” Suyu explains. “The clear visor allows for the transparency of the face, the lips and all your expressions, so the community can access communication.”

The Wavefront Centre provides essential services for people dealing with communication-related disabilities. | Photo courtesy of Wavefront Centre

No cookie-cutting solution

“During this pandemic, the deaf and hard of hearing community rely not only on physical gestures but also facial cues, nuances and signing. All of that can be lost virtually with an online call, through video relay services, and behind face masks” explains Yat Li, head of communications and marketing at the Wavefront Centre. “When people wear obscuring PPEs it hinders those who rely on lip reading because they are unable to see and have that communication that you and I are privileged to have. During this pandemic it has been especially difficult for this community to communicate in traditional ways,” he says.

To address these new limitations, the Centre partnered with Tinkerine in two ways. Individuals can purchase the face shields for themselves with twenty percent of the sale donated to the Centre. Or people can purchase face shields that Tinkerine can provide to the Centre for distribution to the Deaf and Hard of Hearing community. Tinkerine is also sending face shields to audiologists and audiology clinics to continue to provide service to this community.

The money donated to the Wavefront Centre helps support essential services they provide for people dealing with communication-related disabilities. “We are an audiology clinic, but we are more than that,” Li explains. Tinkerine provides counselling, helps people return to work, gives skills training and sign language interpretation instruction “We have counselling, help people return back to work and provide skill training and sign language interpreting. We also support people who cannot afford hearing aids to obtain a refurbished one,” he says.

This campaign has helped people in an already marginalized community maintain autonomy.

Being able to communicate via the face shield allows people to read lips and facial cues if they chose. The project has resulted in a longer lasting outreach as well. “This entire campaign has started an advocacy movement to allow people to recognize that some people in this community rely on lipreading or signing and need to see faces and that there are no cookie-cutter solutions out there,” says Li.

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