WXXI AM News

Pandemic can pose communication challenges for the deaf, hard of hearing

Apr 17, 2020

Credit freeimages.com/ Julia Freeman-Woolpert

Imagine you’re in a busy hospital to be treated for COVID-19. The medical staff is overwhelmed, and things are happening quickly.

You are deaf or hard of hearing, there is no interpreter on hand, and your nurse or doctor is wearing a mask, so you can’t read their lips.

“You don’t want to be nodding your head about whether or not you have any allergies or something like that when you really don’t understand. You don’t want to be playing that guessing game,” said Gerard Buckley, president of RIT’s National Technical Institute for the Deaf.

A global pandemic presents challenges for everyone, but for those who are deaf, being able to effectively communicate with medical professionals is more important than ever.

NTID is trying to empower the deaf community to be prepared. One suggestion is to download an automatic speech recognition app on to a smartphone or other device. The user holds their device up to the person who is speaking, and the app produces a transcript of what is being said.

“The same thing, we were encouraging medical professionals in a city like Rochester to have those available on their iPads," Buckley said.

He praised Rochester Regional Health as a model of health care access for the deaf community. Buckley said the health care system has both on-site and remote American Sign Language interpreters.

But concerns about communication go beyond hospitals and other health care settings. Mandates now in effect in New York state and elsewhere require people to wear masks while in public places where social distancing is not possible.

“At RIT, we’re very worried about it,” Buckley said, “because we have 1,200 deaf students coming back, hopefully in the fall. If we are all in masks, how is that going to affect communication?"

A new type of mask specifically made for deaf and hard-of-hearing people and those who communicate with them is available. The masks have plastic shields over the mouth, but Buckley says sometimes, the plastic fogs up.  He says RIT and NTID are looking for ways to fine-tune these communication tools. The university is partnering with Microsoft to improve the accuracy of its free automatic speech recognition technology, Microsoft Translator.

Buckley recommends more COVID-19 resources that are available on the website of the National Association of the Deaf.

This story is reported from WXXI’s Inclusion Desk.