The Pandemic Has Created Some Unique Accessibility Challenges for Those Who Are Deaf and Hard of Hearing

Published June 16, 2020

Based on the COVID-19 emergency response and information dissemination that has taken place this year, it is probably not evident that 1 in 5 Americans ages 12 and over has a hearing loss.

From personal protective equipment (PPE) to daily broadcasted updates highlighting vital pandemic news, the American response has failed to fully include an entire portion of the population and in doing so may have infringed on civil rights.

When Americans turn to face masks to protect each other, log onto their computers for work and school, and tune into their local news stations for updates on the pandemic, many have the privilege of having some anxieties quieted. These individuals can rest assured they are taking measures to reduce infection, bolstered by the knowledge imparted by public health officials. This is not necessarily so for those who are deaf and hard of hearing.

Facial expression supplies meaning and tone

Sarah Katz, in her Business Insider article on the inaccessible response to COVID-19, suggests PPE like transparent masks should be the standard instead of the traditional, all fabric surgical masks. The latter "[hinders] speechreading and [presents] barriers for deaf and hard of hearing individuals who use American Sign Language (ASL) or Cued American English via Cued Speech (CS)... Both require facial expression to supply meaning and tone that would otherwise be conveyed through speech, which inaccessible masks hide."

Like the parent with a stroller utilizing a ramp, everyone benefits when design is executed with disability accessibility in mind. Similarly, everyone can benefit from seeing facial expressions and emotions. Without consideration for accessibility, the simplest errand has the potential to become extremely stressful to those who rely on or benefit from facial cues.

In the hospital setting, some patients who are deaf or hard of hearing require ASL interpreters to communicate with physicians. During COVID-19, the common practice is for the ASL interpreter to be provided via device due to infection prevention protocols, if provided at all.

Jennylee Bruno was told by interpreters over video conference that her doctors could only help ease the pain she was experiencing from COVID-19 before the video cut out. "I felt like they were giving me a death sentence," Bruno said. "I wanted to ask, am I going to die, what can we do, is there a cure, what about medications, what’s the plan?"

More isolating without the ability to communicate

Between technological shortcomings and unreliable WiFi service, Video Remote Interpreting (VRI) is often an inadequate accommodation that causes more angst for the patient, who may already be in a frightening position. Add to that the fact every hospital employee is PPE-clad with covered faces, and it is no wonder many describe the current healthcare experience as detrimental to their wellbeing. Without the ability to communicate about one’s care, COVID-19 can become even more isolating.

Many with disabilities have the added fear of their ability to access lifesaving treatment if infected with COVID-19. According to the National Association of the Deaf, “[triage] protocols will be in place when hospitals are overwhelmed with patients needing intensive care that exceeds hospital capacity, which means that they may have to make difficult decisions about rationing or denying care to some patients.”

The notion that some would be denied care due to perceived quality of life is unimaginable, particularly when that person is not provided the opportunity to advocate for themselves. That nearly 50% of Americans 75 and older have hearing loss of some kind is an important statistic when considering the age demographic most severely impacted by coronavirus — those 65 and older. This intersection should be carefully considered when creating standards for crisis planning to protect those who have hearing loss.

To ensure the safety and wellbeing of those who are deaf and hard of hearing, Katz calls for "this country to establish a comprehensive set of national guidelines that enable state and local governments to provide access to emergency services for deaf and hard of hearing people before, during, and after a crisis." With such a protocol, the nation could seek to eradicate the challenges those with hearing loss currently face, which is important as we weather the current pandemic and prepare for a possible second wave.