Deaf: The Forgotten Community During COVID-19

More than 90% of children who are deaf are born to hearing families and this difference creates a sense of isolation that can continue throughout life.  Many individuals who are deaf communicate primarily through a visual language, American Sign Language (ASL), with communication relying heavily on facial expression and mouth movements, which act as corollaries to the intonation and vocal emphasis that exists in spoken language. 

Most people are experiencing unprecedented social isolation because of the physical distancing measures that are required to minimize the spread of COVID-19.  This social isolation is compounded by barriers to effective communication and information access for people who are deaf, deaf-blind, or hard of hearing during this challenging time.  The necessary use of face masks to minimize the spread of the disease also compromises communication effectiveness for both spoken language and American Sign Language.  People rely on mouth movements to help with comprehension of spoken or signed language and face coverings reduce communication effectiveness.  In addition, people who are deaf or deaf-blind and use ASL as their primary language, struggle to get access to critical information about the disease and any safety orders that may be issued.  While those who are hearing can rely on news reports on the television or radio, many people who are deaf or deaf-blind cannot rely on these outlets.  Captioning and written English are not adequate methods for information access because of inaccuracies in captioning or limited English proficiency that is common for people in these groups

Imagine experiencing these months with COVID-19 in a “hearing world” where everyone is now wearing a mask that does not give you access to facial expressions or lip reading.

Imagine also, no timely access to information coming out, or to try to rely on information through the television’s closed captioning.  If you have ever tried to read the closed captioning on your television screen, you notice many inaccuracies, including misspellings, wrong words, delays in information, and at times, factually incorrect reporting.  And remember, ASL is not a literal translation to written English, rather, it is its own language.

Can you imagine how you might feel if you were deaf right now, trying to receive communication through closed captioning or by watching a hearing person wearing a mask attempting to communicate with you?  Or being a deaf person who asks a hearing person to remove his or her mask so you can try to understand what they are saying? 

In Ohio, 8 Community Centers for the Deaf (CCDs), serving all 88 counties in Ohio through 11 different locations serve the deaf population in Ohio by providing sign language interpreters, case management services, and job readiness and training.  Deaf Services Center has 3 of these locations serving Northwest, Southeast, and Central Ohio. Several months ago, at the onslaught of the Coronavirus, the CCDs developed a survey, asking our deaf community how they felt about available services and access to resources through this pandemic. 

One key question encountered by the CCDs during this process was how to reach our deaf community to even ask the survey questions.  Do we accomplish this best through social media, reaching out to CCD clients, some other method?  And if it is some other method, what is that?  Who are we not able to reach?  Understandably, those hardest to reach are those we really needed to hear from the most.

And then, how do we translate our written question into ASL and how can we get the survey to the hardest to reach in the deaf community?

The CCDs used all their available resources to reach as many deaf individuals as we could, and we received 144 responses to our survey questions. 

Of the respondents to the survey:

  1. 97% felt they had adequate access to reliable internet and/or Wi-Fi
  2. 87% had access to a home video phone
  3. 82% had access to a communication device (cell phone, tablet with a camera, home computer)
  4. 90% have had access to interpreting services
  5. 78% prefer live interpreting because of the clarify of the communication and the lack of reliability using video remote interpreting
  6. 86% indicated they had the personal protective equipment they need
  7. 95% felt “somewhat informed” or “well-informed” about Covid-19 (primarily accessed through the news or television)
  8. 73% watch the Governor’s briefings with the Certified Deaf Interpreter

Special thank you to Ohio Governor Mike DeWine for providing Marla Berkowitz, (Ohio’s only Certified Deaf Interpreter) and Lena Smith and Christy Horne to provide immediate interpreting services to Ohio’s deaf during his press conferences and briefings. 

With 10% of Ohio’s general population experiencing a hearing loss,) equating to 1.1 million Ohioans) and recognizing we only received 144 total responses of deaf, deaf/blind and hearing impaired individuals in Ohio, it is highly likely those who responded are individuals with the greatest access to technology and other communication devices. It is those without access, we need to find a way to reach.

Additional next steps in this process as identified through the CCDs include:

  1. Establishing a more consistent way of gathering key information from the deaf community
  2. Better incorporation of the deaf/blind community in the process
  3. Stronger accessibility to the deaf and deaf/blind community, i.e. reaching those who are not connected through a device or do not have access to Wi-Fi or social media.
  4. More timely information gathering.
  5. Delivery of surveys and questionnaires in the community using Vlogs and ASL-signed videos rather than written surveys.
  6. When using written surveys, use plain language, understandable to most in the deaf community.

For more information on deafness and hearing loss, feel free to visit the DSC website at . You can also find us on Facebook—Deaf Services Center – Columbus, Deaf Services Center – Portsmouth, and Deaf Services Center – NW Ohio.