When Asli Knowles saw Dr. Brian Travers’ clear masks on Instagram she had to have one. Knowles works at a grocery store and wanted people to see her face. And, she wanted to communicate with deaf and hard of hearing customers without risking their health. When she requested a mask, Travers’ felt so moved that he wrote a letter to her managers.
“Alsi texted, ‘I like to smile, and I think this pandemic is making everyone upset and I want to make my customers happy with my smile,’” the 53-year-old Florida resident wrote in the letter. “Alsi’s reason for wanting my clear, see-through facial covering with a plastic window is the most selfless reason I have ever come across. She is clearly an asset to her organization.”
Travers shared the letter with her and her managers and on social media and thought little of it. But then Some Good News posted the mask and letter and suddenly thousands fell in love Knowles and Travers’ story. But for Travers, the experience felt personal.
“That just resonated with me. Being deaf all these years, a person’s smile tells me right from the get-go (what they’re like),” Travers told TODAY. “She wanted to make everyone comfortable.”
While it often takes Travers weeks to fill an order, he sent Knowles her mask immediately. He sews about eight to 10 masks an hour but demand for Anchor Made Design masks is high. Only one see-through mask is FDA approved for health care workers and it’s tough for others to find masks with clear panels.
“I wasn’t looking for recognition. I wanted her to be recognized. She is a leader and I want other people to see leaders,” he said. “There are no words, there is no dollar value to being able to make a difference.”
Travers, a former doctor who lost his hearing in 2002, started sewing the masks with clear panels after he struggled to communicate with people in masks. He relied on lip reading and masks meant he no longer understood people around him. He often felt helpless like when he tried picking up his daughter's school laptop. While he asked the employees if they could lower their masks so he could read their lips, they refused. He certainly understands that’s safer. But, he was stuck. They had no pens and paper and he wasn’t sure how to communicate. Then another parent pulled his mask down so Travers could read his lips.
“I wish I had his name. He was the reason I was able to walk out of there with a laptop,” Travers said.
Soon, he felt himself pulling away from activities where he might have to communicate with masked people, such as at the grocery store. Travers suspected that other deaf and hard of hearing people had similar experiences. The former physician knew there had to be something to make communicating easier.
“The mask is required. But it is a barrier,” Travers said. "Why don’t we adopt this idea of masks with a window for open communication?"
He sat at his dining room table and examined the masks made since learning to sew in March. Soon, he designed a prototype with an opening covered by clear plastic.
"I fell in love with sewing," he said. "I completed a few hundred orders. I have a few hundred orders that are waiting and still coming it. It is not just the product, it is the purpose. I am honored about that."
In May, Travers received bilateral cochlear implants. Travers had lost his hearing because of a rare condition, osteogenesis imperfecta (OI), also called “brittle bone disease.” He broke his first bone at 6 months old and has suffered between 70 and 80 fractures throughout his life. Hearing loss also occurs commonly with people with OI, he said. In 2008, he experienced a spontaneous subdural hematoma and was in a coma for a month. His situation was so dire that his wife Erin was preparing to donate his organs before he woke up.
“I spent nine months learning how to walk and talk,” he explained. “I’m still a full-time dad, house husband and now business owner, mask maker. My whole life has been giving back to people."
Travers loves hearing from people who want his masks about why they need them. And, he appreciates that they bring people closer together.
“How great is life when there are no barriers? A smile is the greatest way to introduce yourself,” he said. “All these times we may have taken granted interacting with people.”