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COVID-19 Crisis Blog: Deaf in the time of COVID-19 Barriers and Opportunities

23 September 2020 - As we navigate a national and global public health crisis with the spread of Covid-19 Coronavirus, we hear from our research and policy fellows, and members of our research community in a weekly blog which reflects on these new societal challenges. This week as we celebrate International Week of the Deaf, Professor Lorraine Leeson, TCD, discusses the new challenges Covid-19 poses to the deaf community.

Professor Lorraine Leeson, Centre for Deaf Studies, School of Linguistic, Speech and Communication Sciences, Trinity College Dublin.

Mid-March 2020 brought significant changes to life for everyone. We adjusted to reduced face to face engagement and increased use of online technologies. Those of us who are sign language users were no exception. In some ways, we had an advantage – here in Ireland we use Irish Sign Language (ISL), a language expressed in the visual gestural modality, where articulation occurs using the hands, face, torso and body of the signer. ISL is not in any way a manual expression of English or Irish. It is an entirely separate language with its own grammar. Sign language users need to be seen to be ‘heard’ – both in face to face settings and online. In recent years, applications like Facebook and YouTube have opened up ways for this unwritten language to be documented and shared asynchronously, and fluent signers are mostly comfortable with seeing themselves on screen.

When COVID-19 hit our shores, the overriding concern was ensuring access to information about the virus and the government guidance issued in the NPHET briefings. Humanitarians agree that everyone has “a fundamental right to generate, access, acquire, transmit, and benefit from information during a crisis…” To do this, linguistic access is essential. The most visible vehicle of linguistic access that we have become familiar with is information provided via sign language interpretation at NPHET/HSE briefings, and we are proud that many of the interpreters on our screens are Trinity College alumni. Yet, the Irish Deaf Society has noted that not all press briefings were fully interpreted.

Many gaps have been bridged by community organisations working in partnership across this period. For example, the Irish Deaf Society has worked with the HSE to ensure that there is information about COVID-19 in ISL on their website. The Council of Irish Sign Language Interpreters, the Irish Deaf Society and the Centre for Deaf Studies (Teresa Lynch) worked collaboratively to develop new vocabulary and explanations of COVID-19 terminology like ‘lockdown’, ‘social distancing’, ‘herd immunity’ and ‘contact tracing’. This supported the Deaf community, the interpreters who have been working at live briefings, and the many deaf translators who have engaged in informal, voluntary and formal translation of COVID-19 informational resources to ISL. Yet other gaps remain. This oversight is critical to point out because English language literacy is an issue for many deaf people, particularly those who were educated in the second part of the twentieth century when sign language use in education was suppressed. Many adult Irish deaf people report struggling to complete a form or read a newspaper article, so imagine navigating the complexity of information on COVID-19 where only a relatively small proportion of information is available in a language you understand.

With the world moving online, there are possibilities opening up around online participation, but ensuring access requires the sharing of responsibility for organising linguistic access. Some of my research at the Centre for Deaf Studies has shown the asymmetrical effort that deaf sign language users have to invest in order to secure similar – or lower – levels of access than their hearing peers across a range of environments in the pre-Covid era. Everyday we see social media postings from deaf friends and colleagues around the world pointing to the labour required to secure rudimentary access at all levels (e.g. in the UK, lack of provision of interpreters for Downing Street COVID-19 briefings has led to legal proceedings against the British government; deaf professionals around the world comment on the amount of time spent negotiating access to events; and (deaf) reporter John Cradden has reported on the anxiety and stress experienced by many Irish deaf people in contexts where masks are required).

Beyond access to COVID-19 updates, there are the associated surges in demand for mental health services and noted spikes in domestic violence in the population at large. Both of these are domains where Irish deaf people are almost invisible and yet have a higher rate of need. We know that deaf people may experience mental health problems to a significantly higher degree than hearing people. For example, a UK study from 2015 found that 26% of a sample of deaf children aged 11-16 years had a mental health problem in contrast to 14% of hearing children (Roberts et al, 2015). There are no studies of mental health in the Irish deaf community and no specialist services serving this community. This is worrying at the best of times, but with the increased demand for mental health services arising from COVID-19, access to culturally and linguistically appropriate responses is a necessity that requires investment.

We know that reports of domestic violence have increased by 30% during lockdown. Here in Ireland we have no data around how deaf people experience Gender Based Violence (GBV), and more particularly, domestic violence, but figures from other countries suggest that deaf women experience GBV at double the rates of their hearing peers. The Centre for Deaf Studies is engaged in an Erasmus+ funded project, JUSTISIGNS 2, that seeks to improve access to support services in GBV cases by increasing awareness and providing training to multi-agency actors who engage with victims. With our partners (the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre, An Garda Síochána, the European Union of the Deaf, Heriot Watt University, the University of Vigo, and HfH Zurich, and led by Interesource Group), we will be documenting the current concerns and responding by developing toolkits and professional training on this front.

From other research we have conducted we know that deaf people are significantly under-employed and face a great deal of dissatisfaction due to barriers to and in employment. Thus, as we focus on kick-starting the economy and triggering re-employment, the support needs of Deaf communities must be included from the beginning.

There are also some potential “COVID-19 bounces”. The increased visibility of ISL on our screens will hopefully transmute to increased awareness of the Irish Deaf community. Many online events have been interpreted to Irish Sign Language and posted online. We have seen ISL and British Sign Language interpreters on screen for COVID-19 briefings in Northern Ireland where both of these sign languages are used. We also saw provision of ISL interpreting for the RTÉ Home School Hub, a significant move towards ensuring access for deaf children who too rarely see age-appropriate content in their language on TV. Additionally, colleagues at the Centre for Deaf Studies (led by Carmel Grehan and Patrick A. Matthews) have worked to translate a series of children’s books about COVID-19 to Irish Sign Language as part of a global project led by Prof Gene Mirus (Gallaudet University) and Prof Donna Jo Napoli (Swarthmore College and former Trinity Long Room Hub Fellow).

This is a year like no other. And yet, life goes on. Since 1958, the worlds’ Deaf communities celebrate International Week of the Deaf, and today (23 September), the United Nations celebrates International Day of Sign Languages. For Irish Deaf People, the year is particularly significant as December 2020 marks the commencement of the Irish Sign Language Act, passed into law in 2017. The ISL Act recognises Irish Sign Language as an official language of Ireland and sets out to improve access to public services for signers. If anything, COVID-19 has provided a test-bed for access. Our hope is that the increased visibility of sign languages in Irish society will not recede. If what is out of sight is out of mind, then we need to ensure that the sight of sign language use in our communities of engagement becomes a firm fixture of the ‘new normal’.

Lorraine Leeson is Professor in Deaf Studies at the Centre for Deaf Studies, School of Linguistic, Speech and Communication Sciences, Trinity College Dublin. The Centre was established in 2001 to provide educational pathways in interpreting, sign language teaching and learning, and Deaf studies, and has a mandate to conduct research in the areas of linguistics, applied linguistics and Deaf studies. Lorraine’s work straddles these areas. A practicing interpreter, she holds a PhD in linguistics and has written widely about the grammar of Irish Sign Language, the teaching and learning of sign languages, and on aspects of interpreting. She is Principal Investigator on the European Commission’s Erasmus+ funded Justisigns 2 project which looks at access to services for deaf, refugee and migrant women experiencing Gender Based Violence (GBV).


Recent posts in the COVID-19 Crisis Blog:

Dorothy Stopford Price and the BCG vaccination (16 September 2020)

Student Motivation and the Pandemic by Peter Gillis (8 September 2020)

The Happiness of Use-wear by Ellen Finn (14 July 2020)

Worship in a Time of Pandemic with Sahar Ahmed (7 July 2020)

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