UNITED STATES. Rochester, New York: Home to the largest per capita population of Deaf or Hard of Hearing (DHH) people in America, Rochester is widely known as one of the most deaf-friendly cities, where most people know at least a few words in sign language, where workplaces are accessible, and where the finest institutions for DHH persons are available to get an outstanding education.
However, the COVID-19 pandemic, and more significantly, the mask and social distance mandates that have been issued to save lives, have created a further barrier of connection for those in the DHH community.
Masks prohibit lip reading, creating obstacles to communication
Kristen Dack , age 51, has degenerative sensorineural hearing loss which leads to progressive decline as one ages. She received her first pair of hearing aids nine years ago. She shared that the main impact on her is that it’s harder to understand people with masks.
Dack also shared that another concern people don’t realize is that by taking masks on and off, there is a risk of losing one’s hearing aids as the strings from the masks can accidentally pull the $5,000 devices from the wearer’s ears.
Many in the DHH community depend on lip-reading to communicate. With all New Yorkers required to wear masks in public and recommended when in the company of those outside one’s household, the inability to read lips becomes an inestimable barrier to connection.
Getting health messages to DHH community on a college campus
Scott Gentzke is the Assistant Director of Student Life Programing at the National Technical Institute for the Deaf (NTID) at the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT). Gentzke said that RIT managed to remain open and deliver in-person instruction for the whole semester, a milestone many universities (including in New York State) across the United States couldn’t reach through October. “People took the preventative measures seriously.” Among many proactive initiatives, “RIT found a way to monitor the wastewater from the residential areas and anytime there was an indication [of COVID-19], they would test everyone who lived in the dorm.” In order to serve their community of DHH and hearing community, RIT provided see-through masks to all members of the university.
There are more than 1,000 students from across the US and around the world who study at NTID, the first and largest technical college in the world for DHH students. In his role as Assistant Director of Student Life Programing, Gentzke is responsible for connecting RIT’s Center for Campus Life with DHH clubs, organizations, and Greek chapters. But he emphasized that “the biggest thing for the students was ensuring access to information as RIT sent out many email blasts with daily updates.” Students were dependent on these daily updates, especially regarding the status of the virus. “We would need to make sure that there was signed content” because many DHH students do not read English as a first language, he added. This signed content was added as a video as seen here:
Awareness needed about challenges to communication
American Sign Language is used by approximately 1% of the 48 million Americans identified as DHH. This leaves the vast majority dependent on hearing aids and lip-reading. Gentzke said, “I can’t speak for the students but for me who can sign but also has the ability to hear with the use of aids and lip-reading, it has been very difficult.
“The masks do more than cover up the lips. They also muffle/distort sounds so people aren’t clear,” he added. “Even worse when it’s a person standing behind a plastic barrier.” He shared a recent experience at the veterinary office. “I took puppies we are fostering to the vet. With the noise in the waiting room and not being used to the person’s voice, the receptionist didn’t do anything to help me understand her better. I told her flat out, “I’m deaf and wear hearing aids. I can’t see your face or hear you through this plastic thing.” After multiple requests for her to repeat herself, Gentzke finally got her to write down her question, which was asking for a phone number where he could be reached to pick up the puppies—important information indeed.
“Sometimes I have to ask my kids to listen for me and I hate doing that,” he said. “It’s not their job to be my interpreter.”
Gentzke emphasized, “While masks and plastic see-through barriers create obstacles, it’s how others attempt to accommodate me that makes a difference. Deafness isn’t the disability, it’s those who aren’t flexible with finding ways to make clear communication happen.”
Videoconferencing: what works and what’s needed
Not only is mask-wearing an obstacle to communication, but as so much of our lives have shifted to online video conferencing, the lack of free and effective closed captioning has become yet another hurdle that DHH people must overcome to feel included at work, in school, and with family and friends.
Hearing health advocate Shari Eberts managed to garner 58,000 signatures imploring video conferencing companies to provide free access to closed captioning services. Google and Microsoft made the service that translates the spoken work into written text on the screen available, free of charge. Zoom still has not removed the paywall to their closed caption services, but Rev is now offering a ULR plug-in that can be added for free.
Dack said that she uses WebX for her remote job as a quality control manager in the clinical research industry. She does not use captioning. “I use headsets and crank up the volume. Or I use my cell phone and it is Bluetooth enabled directly into my hearing aids, so I can get the audio right in my ear.”
She added, “It’s a pain because we switch between systems for various meetings- so I have multiple headsets for my hearing aids. I use my landline with a wireless headset, my cell phone with my Bluetooth hearing aids, and rarely my computer audio with a wired headset.”
“Deaf people are used to videoconferencing,” Gentzke said. “But having more than two people on a call is a bit new. So we raise our hands when we want to speak in order to make sure people aren’t all signing at the same time.” He added, “We sometimes have to remind hearing people to take turns…especially if there’s an interpreter who can only sign or speak for one person at a time.” This kind of Zoom etiquette is essential for all participants to feel connected.
Changes in deaf-to-deaf communication as well
COVID-19 and mask-wearing have even had an impact on those speaking together using American Sign Language (ASL). “We have noticed that we are making sure our signs are more clear,” Gentzke said. “Despite what most people think, much of ASL relies on facial expression (think the tone of voice for hearing people to figure out if someone is joking, being sarcastic, or seriously pissed. So even deaf-to-deaf conversations are affected.”
With nearly 50 million Americans and 500 million DHH people worldwide, sensitivity to communication with all our neighbors is important in normal times. During a pandemic, inclusive communication is essential for the health and safety of each of us, and being able to convey critical information to every citizen could mean the difference between life and death.