Skip to main content

The deaf community and COVID-19 - the challenges faced

blackboard with lightbulb on

Alison from Communication Unlimited in #Derby was interviewed on BBC Radio Derby on Sunday about how the current crisis, in particular the wearing of face masks affects people in the #deaf community - of which Derby has the second largest outside London. Alison's interview highlights some very practical problems that deaf people face and how hearing people can help to alleviate those problems.

BBC Radio Derby Iinterview with Alison Jones -Sunday 31 May 2020

INTERVIEWER: Socially distancing and wearing masks in public places is expected to become more of a norm in the Uk as we learn to live with covid and slowly leave lockdown. Derby has the biggest sign language population outside London and this can cause an even bigger problem when trying to communicate. How difficult is covid and lockdown if you’re deaf and have there been any positives to all this. Alison Jones is from Communication Unlimited in Derby who provide BSL Interpreters to deaf people. She’s been speaking to me through an Interpreter

ALISON: The biggest challenge is the access to information because my first language is British Sign Language not English, so that of course means that a lot of the information that’s coming through on the radio I can’t access. Newspapers are fine but often the information is changing so quickly so that is often out of date. Things like Facebook and social media, I’m relying on this other person’s interpretation of that information and every single day obviously we have had the government briefings, but there is no interpreter. I’m relying on the subtitles. I sort of start to doubt because I have to read it in English, process it and take in all the information all at the same time. So then when I am talking to my friends, we realise that we have all interpreted the news differently. Then we doubt ourselves as to who has the right information. We have had a lot of deaf people calling in, they often say “am I allowed to do this or that, or to go out. Am I actually allowed to go into my own garden?” We can’t access the information that everyone else can. We’ve made our own Facebook videos because I just knew that the other deaf people in the community of Derby don’t have that information.

INTERVIEWER: Alison, what is day to day life like for you, a lot of people now wearing face masks?

ALISON: It’s absolutely terrifying, cos I don’t know what they are saying to me, and all I can see is the face mask moving with their breath. So I am constantly on edge thinking who is talking towards me. I understand that people who work in shops are nervous themselves, but I went into one supermarket myself, I went down the wrong aisle in the wrong direction and a woman approached me screaming and shouting and I thought oh I didn’t know what was going on, cos I didn’t know what she was talking about. I just had to sort of hurry up quickly do my shopping and just leave. Also I’m looking for maybe 1 or 2 things in the shop for example, I probably would type this item on my phone, or write it down on a piece of paper, but normally now I’m trying to approach them but they run a mile, but I’m thinking I’m just trying to show you what I need. So in the end I couldn’t buy that thing that I needed.

INTERVIEWER: Do you think that the rest of the shoppers, the rest of general population should be a little bit more understanding?

ALISON:  I think especially in Derby with having the second largest sign language community in the UK outside of London, the shops and things like that they should all be much more deaf aware. People don’t necessarily think with the masks and things, but they could all probably use gestures or just simple things like that, or even writing down things on information using signage a bit more. Personally I do worry that maybe there are 1 or 2 isolated people out there that I’m just hoping that somebody can help them out there.

INTERVIEWER: We’ve seen recently someone’s designed face masks with a clear part at the front to be able to help hard of hearing and deaf people lip read a little bit more. Should we be a bit more thoughtful, do you think?

ALISON:  I think that should be something that is used all of the time. Pre coronavirus, things like dentist appointments, they often wear those masks anyway, I can’t communicate with my dentist. I have to constantly remind them over and over again to pull their mask down in order for me to be able to communicate with them effectively. So if it became the norm for everybody to wear the masks with the see through window in the middle of it, that would reduce so much stress and difficulties in the deaf community. But not just for the deaf community, people with additional needs, they might rely on facial expressions or find a smile quite comforting, I do think the positive side, to move aside from the negative, like a lot of deaf people, we do have a lot of zoom calls, we’ve been playing lots of deaf quizzes for example. So I do think we have had that sort of unity come back if you like and I think it strengthens our connections and our social networks. We’re chatting, we’re getting to catch up more, a lot of us do have hearing families, so we may be the only deaf person in a hearing family for example using zoom and things like that, maybe something like Microsoft Teams, they’ve got subtitles so they have that option. So if you were to communicate with hearing family members for example, that subtitling gives us that access to what they are saying, so that’s a real big bonus.

INTERVIEWER: Alison Jones and her Interpreter from Communication Unlimited in Derby.