Social Distancing is Social Isolation for the Deaf

Masks, enforced social distances and other public health initiatives designed to slow the spread of coronavirus pose particular challenges for 37 million American adults with hearing disabilities. After the advent of the coronavirus pandemic, Mike Larson, who is deaf and blind and serves as Paralympic Judo Instructor & Advisor of Share Gift Medical Volunteer Organization, has become even more vigilant. He lives in Palo Alto, California, where he normally buys most of his food himself, but lately he has become more dependent on delivery services.

“The grocery stores are quite regulated,” Mr. Larson said. “The sense of panic everywhere is overwhelming.”

Mike Larson

It would be different if he were allowed to see and touch his friends, he said. “I have experienced a spike in my anxiety,” he added, “and that’s because of all the precautionary measures that we have to take as a whole.”

The pandemic has turned life upside down across the United States, closing down colleges, lifting the economy, and losing millions of Americans their jobs. But for the deaf, new social distance rules, such as keeping six feet away from others and wearing a mask, can present specific obstacles, make daily activities more difficult and raise stress and anxiety.

Ms. Soon Young Choo, a president of Korean Deaf and Blind Association, who is deaf and blind and lives in South Korea, experiences similar feelings of fear while shopping: masks that cover her mouth prohibit her from communicating effectively, she said, causing her to rely on her eyes and the slant of her eyebrows to understand others. Since then she has delegated her boyfriend to do most of the shopping, because she “can’t stand the ever-widening gap that exists.” “This pandemic has further divided the inclusion of deaf and hard of hearing community from the hearing world, and isolated us even more,” she said.

When everyone started wearing masks, Ms. Choo discovered that deaf people’s ability to communicate “jumped out of the window.” “We now have to rely on our cellphones to communicate and it is extremely frustrating,” she said when was interviewed over the phone. When she does venture out, she experiences “increased bouts of anxiety” before and while shopping, and afterward she needs time to recover. Many deaf people depend on visual stimuli, such as the movement of the lips of another person, said staff from California Department of Rehabilitation Santa Clara County. Cloth masks eliminate this visual detail, and they can also muffle expression, she said. New social distancing laws can also generate practical challenges for the deaf and blind. “There are people with disabilities who also rely on guides to help them understand their job responsibilities,” she said. “This certainly creates a challenge for vocational rehabilitation, employment agencies and employers.”

The lack of access to critical information on Covid-19 is also a problem. According to Mike Larson, not being able to see a psychologist in person can cause anxiety and depression in people with extreme expressive and receptive communication barriers.

Sign Language Interpreters are among a growing community of important staff during the pandemic, frequently called upon to stand alongside officials who convey critical information on television and live on the Internet. Zoom meetings and FaceTime talks have increasingly replaced deaf and blind in-person gatherings and social activities, which are subject to the same lockout and shelter orders as anyone else.

Myung Suh Choi and Seung Ah Choi, who co-founded American Sign Language Club at their local high school, use the pro-tactile American Sign Language, a type of A.S.L. that relies on physical contact between people who communicate. “We need to reimagine our society and recognize incorporating our deaf communities first not after promoting changes in education equity, health equity, jobs and retraining, and funding for deaf entrepreneurs and researchers,” they said.

“As the number of coronavirus cases in America is slowing and states are increasingly beginning to reopen with limitations, work needs to be done to protect deaf and blind people, such as requiring the use of trained deaf interpreters and sign language interpreters for all public service announcements, and rethinking the existing one-size-fits-all concept of social distancing,” Myung Suh added. “Since our everyday lives have always needed us to adapt constantly, we have the natural skills, energy and determination to adapt when a big crisis hits us,” Myung Suh said.

Categories: Society