To be Black, deaf and hard of hearing during a pandemic

For the deaf and hard of hearing, a community that thrives on “live” and in-person communication, the stay-at-home mandate is even more of a hardship.
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For many of us, it may feel like we’re hearing more updates, cautions, and somber news related to COVID-19 than we’d like. However, these updates aren’t easy to come by for the deaf and hard of hearing community. The swift communication is often delivered by a federal administration that doesn’t prioritize interpreters and communication for the deaf. 

Because definitions vary, it can be hard to get a clear number of Americans who experience deafness or hearing loss. A Gallaudet Research Institute survey estimates that there are nearly 10 million people who are hard of hearing and close to one million who are functionally deaf. The majority of people affected are over 65. There’s even less data on the exact number of those who are Black.

Yet for those thousands, they frequently suffer the compounding challenge of prejudice for their race as well as their abilities. 

Communication challenges for the deaf and hard of hearing

Even under normal circumstances, access to a quality translation during routine hospital visits can be a challenge for the deaf and hard of hearing.

Daisy Rivenbark, a deaf woman who is a specialist with North Carolina’s Division of Services for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, explained that they rarely have a translator in the room during doctor visits. Typically, they’re offered Video Remote Interpretation (VRI), a service commonly used in health care so that providers can communicate with their patients.

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Providers and patients are in the same room, communicating with an interpreter on a video screen, but according to Rivenbark and Yvonnia Johnson, the service is unreliable. The screen often freezes, and there is a significant lag time between delivering and conveying the message.

Johnson, 37, is a consultant and outreach coordinator for the deaf and hard of hearing unit at RHA Health Service. She says federal, state and local leaders are recommending telehealth appointments so doctors can focus on fighting COVID-19. But, she hasn’t seen a protocol in place to make virtual visits accessible for deaf and hard of hearing parents like herself who want their children to be seen.

“We tend to be the last group that people think about…protocols are set in place, and then all of a sudden they think, “Oh gosh, what about the people with disabilities or who need communication access?” Rivenbark added.

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Daisy Rivenbark, 56, says many of her clients at the state’s Division of Services for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing don’t fully understand the details of the stay-at-home order. Photo courtesy of Daisy Rivenbark

As many communications are pushed out to the general public via the radio, daily podcasts, live television updates with limited captions, and press conferences without an interpreter, Rivenbark shared that many of her deaf clients don’t understand all the details of North Carolina’s stay-at-home order and what that means for a community that thrives on in-person communication. 

“Prior to COVID-19, [our community] met up face to face, we signed, and we tend to be very ‘huggy,’ ” she said. Social distancing doesn’t allow for that type of communication.

Moral quandary for interpreters

Interpreters like 56-year-old Elita Hill are being forced to decide between their safety and delivering service.

Several years ago, Hill was able to provide tactile interpretation for a deaf and blind tuberculosis patient because she had protective gear. The gloves, mask and other gear gave her the confidence to provide her much-needed services without concern of exposure to TB, and she emerged healthy.

In today’s pandemic, frontline workers like doctors and nurses don’t even have enough masks and gloves, so there certainly isn’t enough for the staff who support the work they do.

“I’ve been doing this for over 30 years, and I’ve never seen anything like this,” she mused. “How will someone with close vision or someone deaf and blind who requires tactile communication get the information they need? You can’t do that from six feet away or via a video screen.”

Hill also pointed out that interpreters may serve healthcare providers and patients who are asymptomatic and then later test positive for COVID-19. Now, the interpreter must quarantine for at least 14 days, adding a burden to the existing interpreter shortage.

Interpreters also know that deaf patients who test positive are typically the most isolated. These patients must spend at least 14 days quarantined away from both touch and someone who can help them communicate and understand the services they’re receiving.

The conflict between the interpreter’s code of professional conduct and the concern for their own safety is gut-wrenching.

To be Black and deaf

For Rivenbark and Johnson, two Black deaf women, the pandemic only amplified the existing challenges they experience in health care and Black communities.

Rivenbark shared that within Black spaces, there is rarely captioning provided. She pointed to Black news outlets, independent movies, festivals, panel discussions, and the most recent Juneteenth celebration in her community as spaces where she was disappointed to see a lack of consideration for the deaf and hard of hearing population.

At churches, where Hill and many other Black Americans were first exposed to sign language, interpreters aren’t required to be certified and often cause confusion with sign language that is “made up.”

Even within families that have a deaf or hard of hearing member, both women believe there isn’t enough consideration. At events like family reunions, the deaf and hard of hearing are excluded because many Black families don’t learn sign language.

They don’t want pity; they want a change in attitude.

“We enjoy life, we like the same things. We just can’t hear,” Johnson added.

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Elita Hill served as a sign language interpreter during the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte in 2012. Photo courtesy of Elita Hill

What does an ideal state for the Black, deaf community look like?

“We really need to better embrace our children’s ability, and make the effort to communicate with your children who have a hearing loss versus expensive solutions like cochlear implanting,” Rivenbark said.

Many of the hearing population is realizing that we have taken for granted the value of being able to meet in person and talk face to face. For the deaf and hard of hearing, a community that thrives on what they call “live” and in-person communication, the stay-at-home mandate is even more of a hardship. 

Perhaps, a bit ironically, this is the perfect time for the hearing to listen to the deaf and hard of hearing among us, to prioritize their needs, and identify creative ways to be more inclusive.


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