Allysa Dittmar, Entrepreneur and Advocate, Leads ClearMask in Challenges of Pandemic
By Donald Gilpin
Allysa Dittmar, 23 years old and profoundly deaf since birth, was heading into surgery in 2015 when she was told that the sign language interpreter she’d requested was not available. Her surgical team all wore face masks. Unable to see their facial expressions or read their lips, Dittmar could not understand any instructions they gave her or questions they asked her.
“It was quite a dehumanizing experience and an experience that I never want anyone else to go through,” she wrote in an email. “For someone who depends on facial expressions, visual cues, and lipreading daily, traditional surgical masks blocked my providers’ faces, impeding effective communication and safety.”
Dittmar decided to find a solution. The 2010 Stuart Country Day School graduate, who went on to earn her undergraduate degree and a master’s in public health at Johns Hopkins University, joined a team of Johns Hopkins fellow students and alumni to design and create a transparent mask, the first and only fully see-through mask approved by the FDA.
“Since facial expressions and visual communication are fundamental to how we communicate and connect as human beings, the ClearMask helps make connections more human and provides clearer communication for all,” Dittmar said.
She and her team founded ClearMask, based in Baltimore, Maryland, in 2016. Since April 2020, during the coronavirus pandemic, they have sold approximately 12.5 million protective masks. “See the person, not the mask,” states the ClearMask website.
“I would never have imagined we would be where we are today,“ she said, “having expanded from just the four co-founders to over 250 staff on the manufacturing and fulfillment side. But at the same time, it doesn’t surprise me how well we’ve done. I believe that my team holds a very unique set of exceptional and diverse talent, and our product reflects a universal design that everyone can benefit from.”
Pointing out the growing impact of her invention, Dittmar added, “In addition to hospitals and health care (our biggest customer base), our top customers also include state, national, and international governments, schools (early childhood, K-12, colleges, and universities), and private companies in retail and customer service. The widespread and varying uses for the ClearMask are a testament to the Clearmask’s innovative, yet simple, universal design.”
She went on to explain, “So much of communication is in the face; in fact over 55 percent of communication is visual. We all rely on critical visual cues to fully communicate —including facial expressions and lip reading.”
Growing up in Monmouth County, Dittmar attended Marie H. Katzenbach School for the Deaf in Trenton from age 1 through 5, before being mainstreamed into kindergarten at Stuart. She holds many fond memories of her 13 years at Stuart.
“I’ll especially always remember the outdoors and the beautiful campus,” she said. “The faculty were wonderful mentors, and really helped instill my confidence in myself as a young deaf woman who was capable of doing anything that my heart and mind set out to do. My biggest interest as a young student was writing. It was my passion back then and continues to be today.”
Salutatorian of her graduating class at Stuart, Dittmar won numerous writing prizes and other awards. She was chosen by the Stuart faculty to receive the Yale University Book Award for “outstanding personal character and intellectual promise.” Earlier this year she won Stuart’s Young Alumna of the Year Award for 2020.
When she first came to Johns Hopkins in 2010 she was told that she was the first deaf student to attend Johns Hopkins as an undergraduate who used sign language interpreters and who communicated in sign language.
Dittmar describe her determination and commitment to the well-being of others that helped to drive her accomplishments in school and beyond. “I’ve always been a strong advocate ever since I was little, since I know what it’s like to experience barriers and to stand up for myself and others,” she said. “Having firsthand, real-life experiences makes the work all more important to me, and I have a deep motivation to change the status quo.”
She continued, “In 2016, I attended graduate school specifically to study health disparities in the deaf and hard of hearing communities, an experience that I had so intimately experienced myself from my surgery experience in 2015, as well as having encountered ongoing barriers in accessing health care as a deaf person all my life.”
Dittmar noted that statistics show that deaf and hard of hearing people have worse health outcomes than their hearing counterparts because of lack of access to quality communication in medical care, including qualified interpreters, transparent masks, and culturally competent medical staff.
In addition to her qualities of character and intellect, Dittmar noted that she also possesses a knack for business inherited from her forebears. “I’m the fourth generation in my family to establish a business,” she explained. “When my family first came here, having escaped the atrocities of World War I and World War II in Germany, they set up a bakery in Freehold, New Jersey. My grandfather later started his own insurance company in Freehold, which my father took over, and he established a series of other businesses too.”
ClearMask has received strong support from many others beyond the deaf community, “caretakers and immunosuppressed patients who can’t see the smiles and faces of their loved ones, parents of anxious children at the hospital, and older people who struggle with communication due to confusion and dementia,” Dittmar pointed out in a 2019 Stuart Country Day School News interview.
Dittmar reported testing the mask with dozens of surgeons and other health care workers and interviewing more than 200 people at a National Association of the Deaf conference. “Health care workers told us they wanted a mask that wouldn’t slip and wouldn’t fog up, so we created a system to keep the mask in place and used an anti-fog coating,” she said.
She described working 80-hour weeks at both ClearMask and as a health policy analyst in the Maryland governor’s office focused on the deaf community before leaving that full-time position in 2018 to focus on the business.
As a lifeong advocate for those in need, Dittmar, as president and co-founder of ClearMask, continues to accelerate her accomplishments and impact during the coronavirus pandemic.
“I don’t think I have ever been this busy in my life!” she wrote. “Stuart and Johns Hopkins have definitely prepared me well, and as a deaf person, I’ve always had to work harder and adapt constantly, both which have served me well during this time. Because of the fast-changing pace of the pandemic and the economy, decisions that typically took weeks or months to make have had to be made in days.”
For the future of ClearMask, Dittmar says that the company, which earlier this year sold 250,000 masks to the United Kingdom National Health Service for frontline workers and social workers, is looking to expand internationally and is currently working with several foreign governments and distributors to make that happen.
“For myself,” Dittmar added, “I still have plenty of personal goals I’d like to accomplish in the next few years, especially in the philanthropic sector. My work is never done!”