By Karla Morales and Tanya Jansen
Social distancing has hindered the ways of communication of the deaf, blind, and deaf-blind communities. Touch is critical for these communities which has become a significant risk of contagion due to COVID-19.
Deaf-blind Americans use touch in their daily lives: hand over hand signing to communicate, finger scanning used for braille, hugs and handshakes.
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Kevin Anderson is a hard-of-hearing and blind individual who has noticed some of the challenges that his deaf-blind friends have been facing during the pandemic.
“The biggest problem we’re having is no interaction and no socialization among each other,” stated Anderson. “We don’t have the accessibility. Some of us do have something regarding texting, email and Facebook, but while some have it, others don’t.”
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One of Anderson’s friends, who is deaf-blind, lives alone and is struggling with feelings of loneliness, according to Anderson.
“That’s one thing that deaf- blind need: they need the physical contact. But the computer, the texting, email, eh, it’s okay, but it’s not the same. It’s just not the same. Basically, it’s loneliness,” explained Anderson.
[su_quote cite=”Kevin Anderson”] Plug your ears and blindfold yourself and just sit someplace for a couple of hours. And I want you to meditate what you’re doing at that moment. You’re going to recognize loneliness really quick.[/su_quote]
Most deaf-blind individuals communicate through tactile sign-language which requires touching the other individual to feel what they are signing. Social distancing makes it nearly impossible for deaf-blind individuals to communicate, according to Anderson.
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In order for deaf-blind to communicate during the pandemic, they have been wearing masks and gloves that go up past the elbow, but this is usually reserved for emergencies because individuals must stand close together to communicate.
Jaclyn Vincent is deaf and teaches at the California School of the Deaf, Riverside (CSDR) and said that face masks pose challenges for deaf individuals.
“It makes communication with hearing people impossible when just looking at their eyes for spoken cues that I normally would understand from lipreading,” explained Vincent.
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While everyone is experiencing isolation to some degree, deaf, deaf-blind and blind individuals are facing these issues more directly because their communities act as a support group and family unit.
“Deaf individuals may experience sense of isolation and loneliness when they are with their families who do not sign or communicate well with them. Some may lack technical resources like WiFi and devices,” said Vincent.
Many students at CSDR cannot communicate with family members who do not know sign language.
Such students depend on social interaction at school but the quarantine has had on impact on their language development.
“Language development in the social domain- this quarantine impacts incidental learning when not being able to use language for communication like social play, parallel play, exploration/discovery, and direct language modeling,” said Vincent.
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Teachers have been working connect with families through “storytelling, Parent Support Groups, demonstration of teaching activity along with students/parents,” according to Vincent.
The California Department of Education hosted a live webinar about deaf distance learning. In the webinar, they explained several of the e-learning systems that have been developed including offering weekly ASL classes for families, weekly “home visits” and library time via zoom, as well as access to a flip grid where teachers have uploaded videos then children upload their own videos modeling their learning and development.
Jessica Valencia-Biskupiak, a teacher at CSDR, has continued teaching during quarantine.
“We are doing e-learning and use 365 office, zoom, and programs where we all submit assignments. Some of us will call through videophone to chat with our students to check in with families,” said Valencia-Biskupiak.
E-learning has not been without challenges.
“Zoom depends on voice to get attention but we have to wave and say hey then someone signs- sometimes it might be too distracting or overwhelming,” explained Valencia-Biskupiak. “For those who are deaf with visual issues or ADHD it can be too distracting when all talking at once. Sometimes it might be blurry due to low internet connection, so harder for our eyes to stare and work hard trying to understand what that person says.”
She added that, “Not only are students impacted, but global deaf communities are impacted due to lack of knowledge, no language access, misunderstandings etc.”
Vincent and Valencia-Biskupiak are heartened to see that news broadcasts have been including sign language interpreters in their announcements which makes it easier for deaf to receive news updates.