Three transition year students from the Ursuline Secondary School in Thurles are preparing to compete in the BT Young Scientist competition this week.
Rachel Regan, Kate Carr and Hannah O'Mahony have submitted their project, "How Can People Adapt to a World Where Facial Expressions may be Invisible?"
Initially, the students researched adapting to a world where facial expressions are invisible.
They found that the deaf and hard of hearing communities were particularly affected. The students found that people who were hard of hearing were most affected because they relied on lip reading and may not know sign language.
"It's part of the pandemic that we thought went unnoticed and unseen, and we wanted to start a conversation about it and make people aware that it's an issue a lot of people struggle with," said Rachel.
"We think the deaf and the hard of hearing are left out of the Covid-19 conversation, and our overall aim is to spread awareness of this issue," added Kate and Hannah.
Rachel, Hannah and Kate sent their surveys to local schools, including the Ursuline and the Holy Family School for the Deaf in Cabra.
They consulted experts such as Cheryl Devlin, a social media influencer and member of the deaf community, speech and language therapist Maria Bracken and community development worker Anne Bradshaw who works with people living with disabilities.
The students found that negative emotions were harder to recognise and harder to hide, which may have mental health implications.
"Our most shocking findings were that negative emotions are going unseen. Only 47% can recognise sadness, and only 33% can recognise awkwardness. This was of concern for us, and it can lead to mental health problems," said Hannah.
The students believe that this may lead to isolation as those affected by mask-wearing may avoid social life like visiting shops."
They recommend that students wear transparent masks that allow others to see their facial expressions.
However, these masks are not available locally and are expensive, costing €25 for a pack of four. Although they are by the NHS, they are not approved by the HSE.
"They are not really available, and a lot of people don't know about them, so we are hoping to start a conversation, and maybe people will look into purchasing one.
“So, people who work in public settings like shopkeepers so people can communicate better," said Kate.
The students say that initial reports on the masks found the masks to be less effective against Covid-19. However, they say research says there is no difference between transparent masks and ordinary cloth masks.
Rachel, Kate and Hannah are asking government ministers to examine the issue so that the masks become more widely available and less costly. They would like the government to approve the masks for the public to use and subsidise the costs.
As well as learning about the effect of masks, Rachel, Kate, and Hannah have learned much about language and disability.
"We also learned that the term "hearing impairment" is politically incorrect and offensive to the deaf community, so when that term was used in our project, we immediately removed it," said Rachel.
Principal of the Ursuline Secondary School Mary Butler says competing in the Young Scientist competition is a long tradition at the school and one she is happy the girls are continuing.
"I think it's wonderful. Facial expressions are everything. I know they say the eyes are windows to the soul, but you also need something going with the eyes.
She also says that the topic is something she struggles with because it makes it harder to recognise her students.
"As teachers and as principal of the school, I find it so difficult walking around the corridors when you are moving at speed even to recognise the girls; girls I know well up along TY 5th and 6th year and its particularly difficult at the junior because they came in and they were out for a term and then they were in second year and out for a term.
"So, it is very difficult. It really gets me when I can't see the faces of seniors in particular," said Ms Butler.
She says she cannot wait to read the project.
"I think it's so important, and I'm looking forward to the insights they've got," said Ms Butler.
The BT Young Scientist Exhibition is an annual competition where students all over the country exhibit their projects and win awards for their innovation.
The competition will take place online this year from Wednesday, January 12, to Friday, January 15.
Kate, Rachel and Hannah are competing in the social science category.
"We are very excited we put a lot of work into it, and we are hoping all that hard work will pay off," said Kate.
The public can view the Ursuline students' projects on the BT Young Scientist portal.
They also have an Instagram page called @hidden.emotions.uct.
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