Published Together: COVID-19's impact on the deaf and hard of hearing

COVID-19 has impacted all of us, but the impact on the Deaf and Hard of Hearing has been particularly tough. The Grand Rapids-Muskegon-Holland population is close to 1.5 million people. State statistics tell us that in that area we probably have 150,000 people who identify as Deaf, DeafBlind, or Hard of Hearing.

We've been serving the Deaf and Hard of Hearing for 25 years in 2020. It's safe to say that in that quarter century, we as an organization have never faced anything like COVID-19. But, more importantly, the people we serve have never faced something like this.

More than a month ago, we created a special COVID-19 section on our website (we also have been providing COVID-19 updates on our Facebook page and our Twitter feed). I don't think there's a day that's gone by in that time in which we haven't posted an update about the virus and many days two or three updates.

The reality is that Deaf, DeafBlind, and Hard of Hearing community members have many different levels of understanding, communication, and accessibility that need to be recognized. Many of us hearing people struggle to understand something like COVID-19. Now take the flood of information coming our way as a city, as a region, country, world. Take that flood of information and imagine your first language is 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.

The Deaf, DeafBlind, and Hard of Hearing communities are hungry for information. Much of what our hearing community accesses on TV or radio is not accessible to them. For us, this means we need to continue to advocate on a broad level for communication access with news channels, hospitals, and government and community organizations. It has been great to see Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer and the Kent County Health Department providing accessibility with on-screen ASL interpreters and closed captioning, and leading by example in these areas.

We are inspired by efforts like these, and work tirelessly on advocacy in all sectors. For example, as local hospitals closed off their buildings to visitors, our staff has advocated on behalf of the Deaf and reminded hospitals that communication is essential and that interpreters are essential professionals, not visitors. Happily, most hospitals have been willing to talk through the challenges of ensuring equal communication for all of our communities.

Another challenge faced by the Deaf, DeafBlind, and Hard of Hearing is the Centers for Disease Control’s recommendation that all Americans wear a mask when out in public. Deaf and Hard of Hearing people often rely on lipreading, which can be a challenge behind a mask. And much of ASL is not just viewing the hand movements. It includes mouth morphemes, lip-reading, the mouthing of finger-spelled words and more, all things that a traditional mask makes almost impossible.

Thankfully, clear or see-through masks solve that issue. Currently, online see-through masks are on backorder until the middle of May, but we have worked with a number of people in Michigan who are making see-through masks to benefit the Deaf and Hard of Hearing and to benefit ASL interpreters. It has been a joy to be part of this giving community in which we live and work. Indeed, the masks project has been an unexpected blessing.

Part of our joy has come from being able to partner with people who may never have known about the particular challenges faced by the Deaf and Hard of Hearing. As the only nonprofit on this side of the state serving the communities we serve, we sometimes lead a bit of a lonely existence. The silver lining  of COVID-19 has been seeing others join our work, and we hope to see that continue and to grow. Advocacy for the deaf and hard of hearing is always vital, not simply during times of crisis. 

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Deb Atwood is the Executive Director of Deaf and Hard of Hearing Services and first joined the organization as a volunteer before becoming a paid staff member in 2006. She oversees all of the org's administrative functions and the entire suite of D&HHS programs. She says that making a positive difference in someone’s life is a huge motivator, especially when it is a life-experience like a Deaf child communicating with a Deaf Santa for the first time. Her connection to Deaf culture began when she and her husband fostered and then adopted a relative who is Deaf.