The restrictions made necessary by coronavirus have created new accessibility problems for deaf and hard-of-hearing people that few people seem to care about.

The restrictions made necessary by coronavirus have created new accessibility problems for deaf and hard-of-hearing people that few people seem to care about.

When I lost almost all of my hearing at the age of two, the message I got from medical and educational professionals was clear: I was living in a hearing world and it was up to me to fit into it. To ask for accommodation from it was a sign of weakness.
But because I was so young, the doctors said I could still adapt to the hearing world, salvaging some shred of so-called normalcy. I was fitted with a hearing aid in what my doctor laughably called my good ear, enrolled in special training to make sense of the noises filtering through the new technology and went to speech therapy for almost 20 years to shape the words I cant fully hear. And, like many deaf and hard-of-hearing people, I was never taught sign language.
So for the past 30 years like many people with hearing loss Ive figured out how to hack the hearing world as a deaf person. I wear my hair down most of the time to cover my hearing aid. Many people assume my residual deaf accent is some kind of foreign one, and I usually dont correct them. Instead of asking someone to turn her face so I can read her lips, I position myself where I can see her mouth clearly. I cant talk on the phone, so when I need to make an appointment or resolve an issue, I drive to the office and deal with it in person. If I miss something in a conversation, I research it behind the scenes so I can fill in the blanks myself.
And I never ask for help unless Ive exhausted every single option of doing it myself.
Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit; everything changed. I cant lipread a mouth covered by a mask, or a haltering, pixelated face on the videoconferencing platforms that are suddenly ever-present. I cant read the lips of the governor in my home state of Arizona during his press conferences, when he looks down at his notes or away from the camera at a presentation slide. Video meetings and livestreams, for the most part, dont have real-time closed-captioning for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Ive been turned down for new freelance writing projects and consulting gigs because I cant do phone interviews or participate in a weekly all-staff video call.
Even when I think Ive figured out a clever hack for the new normal, it proves futile. When I tried to use an online relay service (an internet-based version of TTY, where an operator transcribes what the hearing individual is saying and verbally relays to them what the deaf person has typed) to make phone calls, the businesses on the other end hung up on me. I thought that, by ordering my groceries online, I could elude awkward interactions with masked people in the store but, when I arrived in the parking lot at my allotted pickup time, I faced a large sign: CALL US WHEN YOU ARRIVE: 1-800
For the 466 million deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals worldwide who learned to accommodate a world designed around the hearing, the goal posts we were used to reaching have now moved. Accessibility has become even more of an afterthought than before; people like me are being shut out.
Well-intentioned people, for instance, have sent me stories about entrepreneurs developing masks with clear windows for ease of lipreading but when I ask if they plan to purchase one, they claim they dont need it. Others have recommended I learn sign language yet when I ask if they plan to learn it, too, so the entire masked community can communicate with one another, they say theyre barely keeping their heads above water as it is and dont have time to learn a new language.
And why would they? After all, Im supposed to accommodate myself to their world; they arent supposed to have to make adjustments for me.
Despite all of this, I consider myself one of the lucky deaf people. I graduated years ago, so Im not grappling with the challenges of online schooling, as so many deaf and hard-of-hearing children, teens and college students are. I have a few steady jobs as a freelance writer and college instructor, so I dont have to try to navigate the tangled phone lines of unemployment agencies using a cumbersome relay service. I have a deeply understanding husband who despite a decade of being with a stubbornly independent woman who insists she can handle things herself, thank-you-very-much runs interference with mask-wearing folks and drives with me to the grocery store to dial the 1-800 number.
Still, its humbling and terrifying to ask for help, and yet here I am a deaf person in a hearing world who was taught to never ask doing just that.
I dont want this to be misinterpreted as a call for doing away with masks; I trust the experts when they say masks are a necessary tool for preventing the spread of COVID-19. I want people to keep wearing their masks because, as a society, we need to protect and care for each other.
But Id also like to be included in that society. These are incredibly isolating times for many, but they are more so for those of us who cant as easily pivot to the new normal. Disability is a reality, and one for which we must account in these ever-changing times. Small things like captioning your videos, providing email, text services or live chat as an option for those who cant call you, or even purchasing masks with windows for your employees who deal with the public can make a big impact for those with hearing loss.
And if you truly cant do any of those things, at least make compassion your default. My husband has noticed that Ive been leaving a wave of offended people in my wake when were out running errands, because I dont reply when they talk to me. Of course, with their mouths covered, I dont even know theyre saying anything but my lack of reaction leaves people thinking Im just not a very nice person, rather than wondering why I havent heard them.
The benefit of the doubt is not an unreasonable accommodation, after all. And then, when all this is over, I look forward to us all removing our masks, exhaling with relief and me finally hearing what you have to say.

Share