Column: Deaf lose ability to communicate in pandemic


Lillie Brown

Lillie Brown, Lamp writer

Tis I, I hope you can feel me banging the table to get your attention like deaf people. If not, I encourage you to try it out. Start hitting the table with your palm face down. Once you feel the vibrations from the banging, I’ve got your attention. This is a common thing in deaf culture. We can’t yell or call someone’s name, so we use other ways of getting people’s attention.

Keep in mind that there are appropriate ways and not-so-nice ways of getting a deaf individual’s attention. One of the appropriate ways is hitting the table.

As a deaf person, I’m extremely sensitive to vibrations and any physical sensation. Over the years, my body has been conditioned to look up at whoever is pounding on the table. I hope you have fun doing this!

Since the coronavirus hit us as a worldwide pandemic, we’ve all been reeling in quarantine. We started out with TikTok dances and relatable memes, but as 2020 continued, the unraveling happens. We’re devastated at the hate and the suffocating of systematic failure regarding People of Color (POC). There’s civil unrest, stressed parents and guardians, overwhelmed essential workers and a new event every month that seems to shake us to the core. It’s an uneasy feeling, and I, as a deaf citizen, feel your pain, as well as thousands of others’.

Speaking of hitting the table to get one’s attention, I want to loop people in on what exactly has happened between deaf people and COVID-19. The shocker thing is that we deaf citizens weren’t aware, despite the pounding on the table, there was a virus until a month after it was declared a pandemic.

The news you see — such as CNN, Fox News, Newschannel 20 or Buzzfeed — isn’t deaf friendly. The reason deaf people don’t depend on actual news is because captions are always delayed, or captions omit vital information. On top of that, not all deaf people communicate the same thing. They didn’t include certified interpreters who could fit each of our own accommodations and to visualize concepts of what we were going through. Deaf people were mostly in the dark.

Preparing ourselves for this pandemic was gathering the necessary information almost impossible to find or understand. The reason for this is because of a myth that some people often assume. Most people are likely to believe that when someone is introduced to someone else using sign language, said sign language being used is “universal.” The case isn’t true since Germany has their own sign language syntax and rules as well as Europe, China, India, Vietnam and so many other countries that have over time, made their own communication methods. Since we’re talking about the United States, specifically the state of Illinois, I’m going to tell you about the signing methods that deaf people use to make sense of the world happening around them.

First is American Sign Language (ASL), which is most common. With ASL, you are using your face, hands, and body to express a single concept. Despite ASL being the go-to for most deaf people, there are others who communicate using Signed Exact English (SEEing), meaning they sign word for word, which can be time-consuming, but it’s necessary for those who require SEEing. Another is SimCom, which is short for simultaneously communicating. This means I would be using spoken English and not signing word for word. These three frequently used methods are the same in English, but the way they are visualized to the signer contrasts in significant nuances. As you can see, deaf people differ in their requirements to understand their surroundings.

Imagine having a whole crowd of deaf people where ASL, SEEing and SimCom is used interchangeably. You put an ASL interpreter on stage, who’s missing out? Two-thirds of the crowd. That was the difficulty with the news nowadays, meeting those accommodations seemed trivial when you could just get to the point. It’s true of deaf people can perfectly understand what is happening, or others who lack the cognitive skills to pick up on those cues. The goal here is to make sure each deaf person comprehends the dangers of COVID-19 through the communication that fits their accommodation. If we don’t provide that access, the clueless ones continue to unconsciously endanger people around them.

That was my first obstacle when I started seeing people wearing masks and angry customer representatives chase me out because I had no mask on. I didn’t know there was a virus going around that put people at risk; I thought the flu season had just arrived. Eventually, I saw the news on Facebook and realized the gravity of the coronavirus. My News Feed was scattered with panicked posts, videos being shared repeatedly, and I also had my friends and family messaging me. This exposure brought up dread inside. It felt like an eerie hint at the spread of the Spanish flu in 1918 to 1920. I could just feel my conspiracy senses tingling, but that’s a story for another time.

On another note, I commend our Illinois governor, JB Pritzker, for including a certified American Sign Language interpreter at every speaking event he made during this pandemic. He earns gold stars for this win with the deaf community in Illinois; however, he could have included a SimCom interpreter and a SEEing interpreter. Either way, he provided some access and that was a start for me.

Watching JB Pritzker’s vlogs on Facebook had helped so much because I had access to my communication: using ASL. I had an inkling of what to do: wash my hands while singing “Happy Birthday.” I struggled to properly wash my hands because to “sing” to “Happy Birthday,” my hands are singing. I resided to doing one-Mississippi my way to 20. Besides washing germs away, I knew to wear a mask to all public spaces and to stay six feet away from other people, which defines as “social distancing.” I additionally knew that Illinois had a Stay-At-Home order so I was to remain home 24-7. I basically had the foundation laid down on how to stay safe. No one prepared me for how to address someone else wearing a mask in order to communicate.

I personally hate the masks. Don’t get mad at me because try to see it from my perspective. Most listening folks are reluctant to write on paper and pen with me because it involves touching my germs notwithstanding that I’ve washed my hands and have frequently used the hand sanitizer. I’m forced to condescend to my best ability as a deaf person: lipreading. The irony here is the masks. How do I lipread a grocery store worker with a mask on if I can’t have him or her write on paper and pen with me or even type in my Notes app? I also tried asking them to simply move their mask behind the glass shield they have up so I could lipread with the shield as the protective barrier. Some workers have blatantly refused, and some workers have cooperated, understanding the need for me to lipread instead of sharing germs.

Having both positive and negative experiences, it’s discouraging when a worker won’t work with me and will kick me out of line because I’m holding it up. This impatience causes me to feel like my independence is slowly chipped down to a wood chip. I often went home with no food because a worker would refuse to complete the transaction. My spirits were always down. I knew that contracting the coronavirus was lethal, despite a glass barrier as a protective shield and a few lucky days, it was a struggle to stay safe.

I understand that COVID-19 is serious and a hazard to anyone who is at risk. How is it harmful that I ask a worker to move down his or her mask behind their protective glass shield so I can comprehend what they say in order to finish the transaction? My hope is that if an essential worker reads this and they recollect on a time where they did refuse a deaf person; I hope that they don’t continue to hold that grudge, but instead do a minor effort to help a deaf person out. We’re not mad; we’re just frustrated. Besides the lack of information and the obstacle masks, we’re doing OK.

Despite the seriousness of the pandemic we humans are going through, the deaf people are taking this head on like a champ. I’ve seen deaf nurses and doctors upload videos on how to figure out the differences in symptoms. I’ve seen deaf news pages come up with an entire series of breaking down the pandemic to easy concepts that any deaf person could comprehend. This pandemic in the course of our history as a deaf culture is nothing compared to what we originally went through.

That reminds me, for our next article, I’ll be giving you some refreshers on deaf history in Illinois as well as the United States. It’s truly an interesting story on how we deaf people came out as a single culture.