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Recently, clear face masks have been in the news as an aide for the Deaf community, but there are still issues the Deaf community face.

Clear face masks are a step forward to helping the Deaf community interact, as facial expressions are one of five aspects of American Sign Language, according to Kent Schafer, a doctoral student in psychology at the University of Alabama. Without facial expressions, he said, it’s like missing every other word in a conversation.

Masks aside, there are barriers Deaf and hard of hearing people are facing when seeking medical care and advice during the pandemic. According to Schafer, traditional approaches when communicating with hearing individuals is limited. “Imagine coming up to someone with pencil and paper then attempting to communicate in person, only to be pushed away with a verbal reprimand of six feet,” he said.

For many in the Deaf community, English is a second language, so an increase in reading and writing English can be a strain where an interpreter is preferred, Schafer said.

Eric Liddie, a case manager for the Alabama Institute of Deaf and Blind, said there have been a lot of unique problems when accessing healthcare during the pandemic.

“Drive-throughs before were horrendous, which they have improved since then, but you can’t really roll your window down to write notes back and forth,” Liddie said. “[The workers] have gloves and masks on, and the Deaf person may not be sure what the person wants.”

“People have trauma in regards to getting an interpreter,” Liddie said. He recalled a client who wanted to be tested for COVID-19, but stayed home because of past negative experiences.

Online and remote resources have their own troubles, too. “We are more likely to be denied interpreters if there was an exclusive contract and that contract does not have remote services,” Schafer said. Spotty wi-fi, lag time and even sign language dialects from remote interpreters can be a problem.

Liddie’s role with the AIDB is to ensure their clients have support when they need it, from interpreter services to job coaching and advocacy. According to the AIDB, they help Alabama’s nearly 25,000 deaf, blind and multi-disabled people, ranging from infants to seniors.

Liddie said he has been interpreting news stories for the Deaf community, and is especially important when important information is being relayed.

In certain cases, such as Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox’s COVID-19 updates, there are no interpreters. “The Deaf or hard of hearing individuals could be reprimanded if there was something serious set in place,” he said. The AIDB and the City of Tuscaloosa are currently working to find solutions to better accommodate the Deaf community.

There are steps people in the community can take to be more receptive to the needs of Deaf and hard of hearing people, Liddie said. “If they really are just willing to do the research, to actually make that effort, that’s really the first step: being willing to learn about deafness,” he said.

A Lexington, KY woman who was denied accommodations while grocery shopping this week is an example of how a little patience can go a long way.

As for businesses or healthcare facilities, it’s the same deal. “We’re here as an agency to provide interpreters. They are definitely able to contact us, even for different resources,” Liddie said.

Schafer hoped the University of Alabama could become more proactive in creating interpreter programs. “There is only one interpreter training program in the state at Troy University,” he said. “We sure could use more interpreters.”

The AIDB provides communities across Alabama with American Sign Language classes. Visit their website to learn more about resources they provide.

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