The world in normal times is fraught with communication obstacles for deaf and hard of hearing people. Communication obstacles during the COVID-19 pandemic are even more challenging to navigate. The results of these compounded barriers can range from frustration and misunderstandings to life and death situations. One thing is clear, trying to communicate with businesses, virtually and in-person is more difficult than ever as a Deaf person.

Masks Impede Communication

Deaf and hard of hearing people all over the world are entering a new world that is masked and inaccessible, with fewer resources than ever available to reduce these barriers. As a Deaf person, navigating this new normal is heartbreaking and jarring.

Deaf and hard of hearing people are encountering a world where everyone is masked from delivery drivers, grocery store employees, to health care workers. Not everyone in the Deaf community can speechread (in fact most can’t). Nonetheless, the ability to see a person’s full facial expressions is crucial for communication between deaf and hearing people. Our faces provide all kinds of cues that help put communication in context; just being able to see that someone is smiling goes a long way towards establishing a connection on a human level. Deaf people can no longer readily do this and businesses are slow to adapt to these changing needs.

Accessible Healthcare Challenges

This issue is never more pertinent and prevalent than in the healthcare setting right now. In addition to the barriers created by masks, not all interpreters are being given Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) of their own (masks, gloves, gowns). Many interpreters are unwilling to risk contracting COVID-19 in high-risk environments like hospitals, even with PPE. Even worse, there is a greater demand for interpreting and fewer interpreters to meet the increasing need. I know of at least one Deaf woman who died of COVID-19 in a hospital where there were not enough interpreters for all the Deaf patients, and I know she can’t be the only one. Imagine being on your deathbed, alone, and not understanding what’s happening around you. It’s a hard reality that many of us Deaf and hard of hearing people have had to adopt as our own possible ending.

As more Deaf people need to access health care for all kinds of reasons, many are choosing to stay home instead of accessing critical care because of these communication barriers. Even when medical providers are giving their patients the option to use telehealth services or remote video health care appointments, not all of these services provide interpreters and captions to be accessible for deaf and hard of hearing patients. This reduced access to health care can have dire consequences ranging from worsening of symptoms to death.

Inaccessible Emergency Information

It is clear that both government entities and businesses are scrambling to adapt to a challenging COVID-19 world. Accessing accurate information during times of crisis is crucial for the safety and well being of all people. Most government entities, as well as businesses of all sizes, are ill-prepared to ensure Deaf and hard of hearing people have the same level of access to information and resources as hearing people do during this time. When information is not made accessible to deaf and hard of hearing people it can put people at risk and endanger lives. Information about stay at home orders, social distancing rules, COVID-19 symptoms, mask-wearing requirements, and how to keep safe in public is key to protecting lives. If COVID-19 safety information being distributed is not accessible because the content isn’t captioned or real-time sign language interpreters on TV are not present during government press conferences, the risk this poses to deaf or hard of hearing people and those in their community is monumental. As the first line of defense, content must be made accessible with Deaf and hard of hearing people in mind.

          Related article:   Deaf Americans are Urging the White House to Provide Sign Language Interpreters at Coronavirus Briefing

Captioning Online Content

It has never been easier to share business content online, particularly when using social media. Much of the video content on social media, however, is inaccessible. Unbeknownst to many, there are several companies and apps that will caption your online content for you. There are captioning options for most social media platforms including Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube. It has benefits that go beyond just making the content accessible and widening your audience to include deaf and hard of hearing viewers. It will also boost your SEO, make your content more engaging, allow your viewers to watch with the sound off, and will encourage more shares.

Working from Home Realities

We are seeing that this inaccessibility to information extends much further into the daily lives of deaf and hard of hearing employees. Businesses have found ways to support their hearing employees as they work from home including hosting online meetings using a variety of online platforms. This is a great solution to solve one particular problem: how to get employees to share information and work together in larger groups. However, for deaf and hard of hearing employees, this approach is largely inaccessible without sign language interpreters and/or captioning options made available.

I know first-hand businesses are doing the best they can. Most of the time access barriers in place are there only because they do not realize there are companies and resources that can help, many that are low cost or free. When it comes to online meetings there are a number of companies that specialize in ensuring access for deaf and hard of hearing people is equal to their hearing colleagues. Sign language interpreters and real-time live captioners have captured this niche market and are doing so with much success. Technology has come a long way and we need to help businesses catch up and leverage these access opportunities in ways that allow their deaf and hard of hearing employees to participate fully in the workplace, even when working from home.

Barriers to Online Learning

Students of all ages are shifting from in-person classes to online learning all across the country from elementary schools to college and beyond. For deaf and hard of hearing students, this poses unique challenges. Teachers and professors are requiring their students to use content that is inaccessible to deaf and hard of hearing students. Some examples include requiring students to watch online videos that do not have captioning or subtitles, including video presentations as part of assigned coursework, recording lectures and expecting students to watch them, and hosting an online class or online work and study groups.

Increased Isolation

All of these barriers in combination with stay at home orders serves to intensify the isolation experienced by members of the Deaf community. With the world changing rapidly, members of the Deaf community are in danger of being left behind. Diminished access to emergency information, limited health care resources, inaccessible online content, communication barriers when working from home or engaging in distance learning, and interacting with people behind masks all lead to increasing the isolation of the Deaf community in ways big and small, with truly life-changing implications.

The Good News

One thing that Deaf people are good at is finding creative ways to overcome barriers through simple but ingenious solutions. One of my jobs is to help businesses tap into these solutions and leverage them. Not only that, but there are also many small things businesses can do TODAY to increase their deaf-friendliness! If you’re not working to include us, chances are, you are excluding us. If you need help making your business more accessible to deaf and hard of hearing people, please reach out to me. I want to ensure your deaf and hard of hearing customers can do business with you now and in the future.

Call to Action

  • Caption your content on social media and online.
  • Invest in masks with clear windows. There are a number of entrepreneurs specializing in selling these kinds of masks.
  • Make sure your online meetings are accessible through live captioning and/or sign language interpreters depending on your attendee’s needs.
  • Encourage your employees to learn the ASL alphabet and a few basic signs.
  • Be creative! If you’re behind a mask, use gestures or pen and paper to communicate.

Take some action today, no matter how small or big. I promise, your deaf-friendly efforts will go a long way in the hearts and minds of your deaf and hard of hearing customers!