Jacob deHahn ’19 is using his creative entrepreneurial spirit to make masks more accessible in a pandemic

two brothers wearing accessible face masks
Patrick and Jacob deHahn

Jacob deHahn ‘19, is an energetic and bubbly New England native who is determined to make the world a more accessible place. Through his college career as an industrial and interaction design student in the School of Design in VPA, he was focused on accessibility and inclusive entrepreneurship.  Now, the San Francisco based innovator and professional designer has taken his startup spirit and put it to work as cofounder of accessiblemasks.org.  Jake started the venture with his brother Patrick to build a resource website showcasing clear masks and to advocate for making the masked world more accessible amidst a global pandemic.  The site prioritizes mobile-first design, and is entirely accessible following web content accessibility (WCAG 2.0) guidelines which makes web content more accessible to people with disabilities by including natural information such as text, images, and sounds, and code or markup that defines structure, presentation and other features.

The goal is to “make the masked world accessible, one accessible mask at a time,” according to Jake. The platform features a hand-curated selection of transparent face coverings, with styles ranging from tie-back to ear loop, to specialty or face-shield, and include reusable, disposable, anti-fog. They come in both adult and child sizes.

Jake and his brother come to this venture from a very personal perspective.  Both are deaf. Jake was awarded the 2017 HearStrong Champion Award from the Hear Strong Foundation while he was still a student at Syracuse University.  Jake says that his secret weapon is his hearing loss.  He says that despite daily struggles, his hearing loss gives him the ability to see things that need to be fixed and ways to improve quality of life for all people. Both he and his brother are cochlear implant users and Jake proudly enjoys sharing his personal story at conferences around the nation, building a platform to show how having a disability shouldn’t stop anyone from defying stigmas and dreaming big.

“My older brother Patrick lives in Brooklyn, is a freelance journalist and a brilliant writer and researcher,” says Jake. “He is very focused on validating that what we are sharing is reputable. I am a UX/UI designer who is very dedicated to accessible design. Together, we wanted to merge our talents and do something important to help people connect in this difficult time, and at the same time, help create accessibility awareness in the general population.”

Jake and Patrick have had a unique bond since birth. Patrick is four years older and was born profoundly deaf. When Jake arrived, his parents quickly had his hearing tested and discovered that he was also profoundly deaf. Both parents can hear so they were surprised to learn they had two deaf sons. They did not miss a beat. The family quickly mobilized resources and Jake says they all learned together that “deaf people are as capable as anyone else.” Moreover, the brothers formed a support system for each other at a very early age that no one else will ever understand. “Patrick and I have a bond that we don’t need to vocalize.” Over more than two decades Jake says that the brothers have learned that, “Disability awareness is still lacking. We both want to contribute to that.”

Jake’s family become more than advocates. They become actively engaged in language education. “My mom works for Clarke Schools for Hearing and Speech in Northampton, Massachusetts and also with a nonprofit, OPTION Schools, Inc., that is a national resource for children with hearing loss. The organization’s mission, according to its website, it to help children with hearing loss to listen, talk and reach their full potential.

The bond helped the brothers launch their venture in less than two months. “There were 12 hour video calls with Patrick to focus on our value proposition,” says Jake. “The target for the website is not just the deaf, but for hearing people. In the pandemic, we wanted to bring back human interaction. We need facial and visual cues. We need to understand the emotional content of what people are saying.” And, he points out, dealing with COVID public health measures can make the deaf feel even more isolated as the world has become “masked.”

Jake says that these are not just “cheeky smile masks” as people often refer to see-through masks. Yes, they enable smiles, but so much more. “We can’t hug right now, but we can better see each other, read each other, relate to each other and laugh. When I wear an accessible mask I am far more inclined to talk to people and I find that is reciprocal.”

These are what Jake calls “purposeful masks.” He points out that 15% of Americans are deaf or hard of hearing, a number that is growing as the population ages. That is one reason that people who are not deaf should be wearing accessible masks, especially in service industries. “Imagine if you could see and read the full faces of flight attendants, teachers, health care providers, or those in the service industry. In an era of COVID, we can only read eyes and eyebrows. We are missing the meaning that comes with reading a full face.” Deaf people are particularly expressive, notes Jake. “In our world, you learn to emote and also to read emotions. It’s essential.”

As they curated the website they wanted to keep their collection small and focused. It was important to them that they validate the offerings they were promoting through social media, leveraging Instagram and networks through both deaf and hearing communities. Within a few days of launching, the site has already achieved great traction, reaching several thousand people on Facebook and the website seeing more than 1,000 views and interactions. Their posts have been widely re-posted by the deaf community and accessible mask providers are seeing sales upticks.

This new venture builds on Jake’s career at Syracuse University. As a student, he worked closely with the LaunchPad to embed accessible design into tools and resources, and collaborated with the LaunchPad and InclusiveU on a number of workshops and projects that built the framework for the LaunchPad’s inclusive entrepreneurship program, Intelligence ++, which launched this fall with InclusiveU and VPA’s School of Design.

He is now a designer at Breinify Inc. in the San Francisco Bay Area where he is launching a brand new website with UI crafted via Figma and designing a visual identity across the website, UI, and marketing content of an enterprise MarTech startup bringing in $2M ARR & $20M+ in funding.  He has already created 60+ pieces of custom content, including mockups helping sales team close 3 deals with billion-dollar companies with an average deal size of $250K.

In addition, he is a self-employed freelance designer. Some of clients include former Syracuse LaunchPad student startups who are alumni and who have now launched their ventures full time.

“My design philosophy is also my greatest motivator in life, to utilize my design skills to make the world a more accessible – and better – place,” says deHahn. “Whether it’s through UX/UI interfaces, visual design and branding, or design research, I am driven to make my work approachable and impactful for the greater good. At the end of the day, I pride myself on being a positive, vibrant, and energetic soul. Whether it’s finding joy over the smallest of things or working with brilliant minds, I thrive when surrounded by people who also appreciate our differences as individuals.”

Jake’s first entrepreneurial venture at Syracuse University started with Jake’s Patches, a business selling hand sewn, word-based patches via Etsy, street fairs, and pop-up shops. He then launched Bowtie Boulevard as a student, which won first place in the the 2019 RvD iPrize. The venture featured limited edition handmade bowties and accessories from upcycled fabrics.

The LaunchPad is so proud of Jake and Patrick, and is committed to supporting them in their mission to re-define accessibility.