7 ways Deaf and Hard of Hearing Services pivoted during the pandemic

For those who are deaf and hard of hearing, the pandemic created an extra layer of challenges. Many had a harder time accessing health information. 

Deaf, deaf-blind, and hard of hearing community members have many different levels of understanding, communication, and accessibility that need to be attended to, says Deb Atwood, executive director of Deaf and Hard of Hearing Services (D&HHS) in Grand Rapids.

“Many of us hearing people struggle to understand something like COVID-19. Now take the flood of information coming our way as a city, a region, a country, and the world. Take that flood of information and imagine your first language is ASL (American Sign Language). Much of the information isn’t available to you. The people we serve have been marginalized and are vulnerable. They become even more so during something like this pandemic,” Atwood says.

Springing into action

Fortunately, the organization is able to pivot to address those issues, demonstrating the agency’s nimbleness and agility. As they worked with more and more clients who were frustrated by the ways in which they were missing out on critical COVID information, Atwood and her team sprang into action:
  • They worked to help people understand that the first Executive Order from Gov. Gretchen Whitmer allowed for an exception for the deaf, deaf-blind, and hard of hearing, saying: “The requirement to wear a face covering does not apply to individuals who … are communicating with someone who is deaf, deaf-blind, or hard of hearing and where the ability to see the mouth is essential to communication.”
  • They also began to source and distribute communicator masks, clear masks that allow deaf, deaf-blind, and hard-of-hearing folks to see the speaker’s mouth and lipread.
  • They created a partnership with WKTV in Grand Rapids and launched a new program for the radio station and YouTube called “Hands on Health,” co-hosted by a deaf employee and a deaf board member and presented in both ASL and spoken English so that all audiences could access important health information, including on COVID.
  • They moved their successful ASL classes from in-person to online, quickly pivoting and providing an online ASL experience that students raved about, and also moved their annual Kids Kamp from an in-person experience to an online and video format that also received rave reviews from kids and their parents.
  • They partnered with the Kent County Health Department on a vaccine clinic for those they serve, including applying for and being given a microgrant from the COVID-19 Resiliency Fund of the CSD Unites Community Foundation, an Austin, Texas-based organization that works on behalf of the deaf and hard of hearing, one of just six organizations across the country to earn a grant.
  • They worked with local, state, and national officials to make sure government press conferences, briefings and more had an ASL interpreter present.
  • And they did extensive media interviews on issues facing the deaf, deaf-blind, and hard of hearing during the pandemic, as well as numerous stories on their website.

Founded in 1995

Being responsive is pretty typical for the organization, which was founded in 1995 after a deaf community leader nearly died after a series of miscommunications following a heart attack.

“The circumstances that Marty Jansen and his wife, Dianne, had to endure were the final straw for many in the West Michigan deaf community,” Atwood recalled. “People came together and said enough is enough. We need a comprehensive, full-service agency addressing the needs of our deaf and hard of hearing communities.”

It has evolved into a comprehensive, full-service agency serving the needs of the deaf, deaf-blind, and hard-of-hearing communities, the sole agency in West Michigan that does what it does.

A big move

Now, as the pandemic shifts to becoming endemic, Atwood and her team are poised for another — literal — big move.

In mid-June they will be moving to the Special Olympics of Michigan Unified Sports and Inclusion Center, joining a host of other nonprofits under one roof to better serve their clients.

To get ready for the move, D&HHS launched its first-ever major Capital Campaign at the beginning of the year. “Expanding Equal Access: A New Home for Deaf and Hard of Hearing Services” is a $266,000 fundraising campaign that will allow D&HHS to become part of the large nonprofit center being developed at the old South Christian High School on 68th Street SW in Grand Rapids, just west of a major bus line on South Division Avenue.

‘It’s going to be great’

D&HHS will join Special Olympics of Michigan, Autism Support of Kent County, Brody’s Be Café, Disability Advocates of Kent County, Down Syndrome Association of West Michigan, Far Out Volleyball Club, Mental Health Foundation of West Michigan/be nice, MOKA, and Thresholds in this new space.

“Deaf & Hard of Hearing Services is our go-to partner for any issues dealing with hearing loss.  We are delighted to have them as our new neighbor," says David Bulkowski, DAKC's executive director.

D&HHS Board President Rowan O’Dougherty says the organization is looking forward to joining the hub of providers.

“Deaf people need our agency, and deaf people need community. That’s why I am so excited about the move here. We currently have such limited space, but when we move here, those limitations will go away. We can draw our community together to socialize, play sports, and have coffee at the café. Our deaf senior citizens could make this a weekly activity. It’s going to be great,” O’Dougherty says.

The organization plans to move to the new space in June and have an open house and ribbon-cutting ceremony on Aug. 18.

 All are welcome to attend, just as all have been welcome since the organization was first launched in 1995, Atwood says.

“It’s right in our Mission Statement. Our mission is to provide equal communication access, education, and advocacy to the Deaf, DeafBlind, and Hard of Hearing in pursuit of all life’s opportunities. That’s been the case for 27 years and will be the case for many years to come.”
This article is a part of the year-long series Disability Inclusion exploring the state of West Michigan’s growing disability community. The series is made possible through a partnership with Centers for Independent Living organizations across West Michigan.
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