How coronavirus is impacting people who are hard of hearing

Kate – Year 12 Student

Editor’s Note: Year 12 student Kate has written this thought-provoking opinion piece and asked for it to be shared in The GSAL Journal. As Kate notes, and is happy to share, “this is about how the coronavirus has affected people with hearing loss, such as myself with moderate hearing loss. I also have quite a few deaf friends at other schools who’ve been struggling a bit and I think that’s where my inspiration mainly came from – don’t worry, GSAL have been amazing supporting me! It’s certainly more of an opinion piece than an essay, but it’s based on recent facts emerging and I think it is an interesting way of bringing attention to these facts. Also, it was Deaf Awareness Week a few weeks ago now, something I felt was largely ignored.” CPD


Considering that we’ve been in lockdown for several weeks, with nothing to do but sit at home, it almost felt unbelievable to see how ignored Deaf Awareness Week was. Nevertheless, for the sake of looking on the brighter side, it served as a means of highlighting to me how different life has been for not only deaf people, but for disabled people as a whole. It feels hard to believe that for those with carers, they have to decide whether they want help from people every second of every day, or none at all. The alternative? Compromise their own health by allowing someone who may have been exposed to both leave and return to their house, day in, day out. Things that are, traditionally, the foundation for disability support, have been somewhat swept under the rug in light of coronavirus. For most of us, we haven’t even begun to consider these things, and if someone were to tell us this, we wouldn’t have to ask them to take their mask off so that we could lip-read their explanation.

The friends, family, and, to some extent, even the strangers that many deaf people rely on are “locked down” in their own homes several streets away, and it’s for the first time that quite a large group of people are being forced to go out alone. The people we can usually find there to warn us of oncoming cars, of the strangers behind us, and for some, to interpret the spoken mode into BSL, have been pulled out from under us.  In fact, the social media shaming that comes with “breaking social distancing” makes life even harder for those who need such an extra help. If there’s one thing that I’ve learnt in the past eight weeks, it’s that there’s a certain amount of ableism that comes along with the coronavirus.

Unfortunately, there are further limitations even away from the public eye; research published recently by the deaf charity Action on Hearing Loss revealed that three quarters of people who live with deafness fear they will be less productive working from home.

Does this surprise me? No. Because if I was in that survey, I’d certainly be a part of the three quarters. There’s a certain uncertainty that comes along with removing your aid, whether it’s your glasses, an interpreter, or your hearing aid. For people that live with these means of support, it seems nonsensical to try to communicate without it. Yet, this is the reality of lockdown.

Hearing aids are quite clearly not compatible with video and voice calls, which currently involves pressing the volume increase button every five minutes whilst entirely forgetting it’s already on full volume. Those wearing glasses have to focus on computer screens all day (which, as anyone would tell you, is certainly not good for your eyes), and, for those with physical disabilities, the condemning of public transport because of the virus makes travelling anywhere either impossible or incredibly risky. It would be equally nonsensical for me to try to explain to those who with no prior understanding of deaf culture just how incredibly lonely lockdown will be for those who rely on interpreters – though, for anyone with English as a Second Language (ESL), I’m sure you can imagine.

Of course, unlike some of the other more prevalent problems, there are a number of things employers and teachers alike can do to help adjust for the benefit of their deaf pupils and employees. Some examples include muting themselves when they aren’t speaking to reduce background noise, ensuring cameras are face-on and with good lighting to reduce shadows, and providing context to ensure that there is always a clear structure. For those learning foreign languages, lip-reading foreign lexical structures becomes even more difficult over a video call. It’s important that people who have adjustments in place face-to-face are able to have similar adjustments at home; surely, this should be common sense.

Once again, for those under the false belief that this is the full extent of these problems, I have to remind you that this is only on a domestic level. Deaf people have been hit particularly hard by the COVID-19 crisis, because, as I mentioned before, one of the key aspects of surviving in a “hearing world” comes down to lip-reading.

To some extent, we all do it, hearing loss or not, to catch the end of that conversation we didn’t quite hear, or to see what someone’s saying across a room. Yet, for people like me, and the 12 million other deaf people in the UK, this is something we do constantly. Facial hair, accents and shadows are just three of the several features that affect our abilities, as humans, to communicate.

If you’d asked me in January whether I’d thought face masks and face shields would be added onto that list, I’d probably have laughed. I’d never have imagined that being taken into A&E would be something to be scared of. Can you imagine being taken to hospital, critically ill and surrounded by medical staff, but no way of understanding what they’re saying, or for whomever you live with to realise that your hearing aid/cochlear implant is left on the bedside table at home?  This is certainly not assisted by the now unavoidable use of face masks, even outside of medical settings. Whilst they’re certainly necessary, it’s not unfair to argue that they have the most detrimental effect on the successful lip-reading of the deaf. Taking this a step further, can you imagine being a deaf NHS worker?

Recently, nine organisations, led by the National Deaf Children’s Society have written to Public Health England and NHS England urging them to work together to quickly commission transparent face masks. The collection, which includes several well-known charities, has requested that the government guidance on this topic include advice on speaking to deaf or deaf-blind people whilst wearing face masks or coverings. This, in all honesty, is fair enough. Deaf people should not be an exception in the overwhelming support the rest of the UK are receiving. As described by the same group of charities, these face masks are the simplest way of preventing “months of misery” for deaf people.

It would be ignorant not to acknowledge their importance regardless, though. Of course, there’s a certain priority in saving human life that massively overshadows such a small group of individuals, but it’s one of many concerns that certainly needs addressing, even if only to provoke thought in those who had never considered such an idea.

However, because of our already severe lack of PPE (perhaps the world’s most well known initialism at present), this is something unlikely to be recognised.

One way, though, in which the 14,000 deaf who have this as their main language are doing, is signing – a nationwide method in communicating through quarantined windows, to hear people without the need to remove masks, or the face-shields that distort lip patterns. It’s a lot easier to mistake two words that sound similar in spoken discourse due to their phonological structure than it is to confuse two entirely different sign words, which rely on distinguishable patterns, in a way that verbal discourse simply doesn’t. For me, this is another provocative feature to come out of some of the blatant ableism from the coronavirus.

Of course, deaf people have long struggled with the appropriation of deaf culture – hearing people learning sign swear words with no acknowledgement of the regionalisms within the language or the classic: “sorry, I’m really deaf today!” as if a permanent disability magically, randomly, affects those with perfect hearing.

With that being said, it would be little surprise to me if British Sign Language (BSL) were to grow exponentially due to the coronavirus, and by no means do I consider this a bad thing when done properly.

On the other hand, the idea of even more people approaching me and my friends to tell me they “know sign,” only to express several curse words is definitely more than a little bit frustrating.

For those that are curious about seeing sign in action, at the moment, there’s no way of accessing the daily BBC coronavirus updates in BSL without going online – a stark contrast to the Scottish press, which provide an interpreter to the left of Nicola Sturgeon in every single interview. The SNP certainly have my vote there.

The focus of our lives over the past few weeks has been something of a mantra of “change” – whether that’s changing our lifestyle to adapt to lockdown or promising to change when we return to normal, the beginnings of wider considerations of deaf culture seem to show promise of something, whether this is positive or negative.

Kate 033155

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