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Pop-up vaccination clinic to serve Rochester’s deaf refugees

Max Schulte/WXXI News file photo

A pop-up clinic Saturday will focus on vaccinating Rochester’s deaf refugee population.

The clinic, hosted by the nonprofit Deaf Refugee Advocacy, will offer first and second doses of the Pfizer vaccine to deaf, hard of hearing, and deaf-blind new Americans. 

The pop-up’s organizers had planned to use the Johnson & Johnson single-shot vaccine, but that was before the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended a pause in the vaccine’s use after six women in the United States developed a rare disorder involving blood clots.

Deaf refugees, who often face language barriers, may not have a good understanding of the medical system and may lack trust in it, said Donna Nelligan-Barrett, executive director of Deaf Refugee Advocacy. A crucial feature of the pop-up site is deaf people are involved every step of the way, she said.

Deaf Refugee Advocacy vaccination clinic The clinic runs from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday at Jackson R Center, 485 N. Clinton Ave. Reservations can be made by calling (585) 450-3330. Walk-ins are also welcome.

“I see this as a great disadvantage that our deaf refugees have to deal with, mistrust of our society,” Nelligan-Barrett said. “Language acquisition or deprivation issues are a huge issue here. Many of them have never been educated or they were undereducated. They developed home signs within their families/tribes. We don’t know that language, so we use pictures and gestures. They have been terrorized/traumatized, not knowing and understanding why they need to move.”

According to the state Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance, 860 refugees settled in New York in 2020, 103 of whom now live in Monroe County. They came from across the globe, with Afghanistan, Myanmar, Ukraine, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo topping the list of emigration points.

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When coming to the states, refugees often face language and cultural barriers. But for deaf refugees, those barriers can multiply. Many deaf new Americans never were taught American Sign Language or a formal method of communication at all, according to Diana Pryntz, Deaf Refugee Advocacy’s client services director.

“Not only that, if they grew up isolated from other deaf people or lacked opportunities to learn their country’s sign language, they most likely suffered from severe language deprivation,” Pryntz said. “To understand the impact of this, be aware that most USA-born deaf people suffer from some degree of language deprivation. Imagine those that were born or lived in war-torn countries that are in political turmoil, what it must have been like for them.”

To get the word out, Deaf Refugee Advocacy focused on a multifaceted approach that used social media platforms, letters sent to other deaf advocacy groups, and the assistance of the University of Rochester Medical Center and RIT’s National Technical Institute for the Deaf.

The clinic is, ultimately, a program which aims to assist a group which can often be difficult to reach, and can be especially vulnerable.

“The event is important so we can build herd immunity,” Nelligan-Barrett said. “In most of their cultures, they live within their family or tribes and they are very close and many of them are essential workers who happen to live in underserved areas.”

The pop-up clinic will run from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday. Reservations can be made by calling (585) 450-3330.

Gino Fanelli is a CITY staff writer. He can be reached at (585) 775-9692 or