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COVID-19 and My Take on Accessibility as a Deaf Person

No one expected that 2020 would start with a tiny yet very mighty bug that would cause the pandemic and put the whole world on halt for a long time. Many businesses and schools got closed or switched to virtual work or learning. Everyone was asked to stay home except for essential workers. International travel got suspended and country borders closed. Hospitals got filled with patients infected with COVID-19.

I’m based in NYC area. It’s been almost 3 months since NYC’s lockdown went into effect requiring residents to stay home. It started on Sunday, March 22 as ordered by NY Governor Cuomo. Since NYC was the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak in the USA, it began the phase one of reopening later than other states in the USA and other cities in the NY state. Every USA state has followed different lockdown and reopening rules. NYC officially reopened on Monday, June 8.

Remote work, school, events

The major change that pandemic has brought is acceptance of online activities – virtual work, virtual learning, virtual events. It’s something that disabled people have been asking for a long time but have been denied. The needs of disabled people for remote work and flexible schedule finally proved why accessibility benefits everyone as explained in an article on Quartz website (The coronavirus crisis proves reasonable workplace accessibility has been possible all along). Sadly, society at large usually would not take ongoing issues of disabled people seriously unless they also impact non-disabled people.

As someone who advocates for remote work, I am glad to see the positive side of the quarantine that encouraged more companies to consider remote work and job flexibility. Even though more and more people have been working remotely lately, many companies were still hesitant to offer this as one of options to their employees until after the lockdown started. It is especially important for people with disabilities who cannot travel to work in person or need flexible schedules. Some people were used to remote work while others were new to it and had to learn to navigate it.

As an independent consultant working remotely, I experienced no major changes when the pandemic started. Before the pandemic, I already used instant messaging tools like Skype and video conferencing tools like Zoom to do consulting sessions, webinars, and presentations online – mostly via typing. I cannot speak to people on the phone, so communicating with them via email, texting, instant messaging, video calls, and online chats are the best way for me as a deaf person. The only difference I experienced after the pandemic started is the increased number of online presence and the lack of in person meetings and presentations.

Even though I worked remotely and used online tools before the pandemic, the experience has been very interesting for me lately. It has been weird for me not to be able to go further than a few blocks from my place during the lockdown. Living in a suburb, I haven’t been to the city for almost 3 months. I used to go there for meetings, events, or errands. I did not have to worry about wearing masks or maintaining social distance before the pandemic.

How do I participate in remote activities

At first I was excited to be able to participate in more online events and webinars from the comforts of home and not worrying about travel time. However, as time went on, I started to get what everyone calls Zoom fatigue. I’m more used to interacting with people in 3D. Seeing them on the screen in 2D is a different experience. You see a cropped version of a person in Zoom and cannot catch all non-verbal cues. Also, it’s confusing to maintain eye contact with more than one person in Zoom. Not to mention occasional or frequent video freezes due to the bandwidth issues as video takes up more bandwidth than voice or text.

Now you wonder how I can participate in virtual meetings as a deaf person. If I speak to people one to one and the person doesn’t know sign language, I prefer to type. If I participate in a virtual group meeting or watch a virtual presentation, I use tools outlined in my article, Online Communication and Information Access for Deaf People.

Some meetings offer remote human live captioners while others offer both remote sign language interpreters and remote human live captioners which is ideal. Sign language interpreters would enable me to communicate with others by voicing for me what what I want to say. Remote human captioners provide more accurate speech to text than machine generated captions.

There are also some issues. Video takes up a lot of bandwidth. Sometimes this may make an interpreter or a signer freeze. That’s why I prefer to type online and have someone read what I want to say to a larger audience. Also, there’s not enough of professional interpreters and captioners available for all meetings. Not to mention how exhausting it is for me to explain to every event organizer why it’s important to use professional services for an online event. Some events are happy to follow my recommendations to improve event accessibility which I always appreciate.

For many online events, it’s easier for me to just turn on a speech to text app on my phone to read auto generated captions. I’ve tried different speech technologies for my MacBook and iOS devices. Their accuracy rate depends on various factors such as: background noises, proximity of a speaker to a microphone, how well a speaker enunciates, and how many people speak at same time – among other things. Many speech to text apps seem to be similar to me in accuracy rate. They get better with time but still are not accurate enough to replace professional human captioners.

Lately I have been utilizing Google Live Transcribe. I’m an iPhone user, but that app is not available for iOS. And I’m not satisfied with some iOs apps that I tried. So I decided to order a cheap android phone and to download Google LT. So far I like it more than other apps. It works well for most webinars when one person is speaking with normal pace, loud and clear.

While I have no problems disclosing my deafness, I find it so nice to be able to ask questions during webinars in a chat box like everyone else. And nobody knows that I’m deaf! It reminds me of this comic from 1993 – On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog. There were situations like online networking when I do need to explain my deafness and why I need to communicate via typing in the chat box. It’s necessary to avoid misunderstandings from people if they try to talk to me and wonder why I cannot follow them.

I also use Zoom for virtual yoga classes. It is my first time doing it! You may wonder how I can follow a regular yoga class in person as the only deaf person. It’s easier for me to take yoga classes in person. As someone who has practiced yoga for 10+ years, I am already familiar with many asanas and don’t need to know every word said in classes. Most words the instructor uses are to tell students what body parts to move and how. So I just follow movements of the instructor and other students. In the end the instructor taps my shoulder to open eyes. If needed, the instructor types information to me before or after the class on their phone or speaks into it using a speech to text app.

It’s more challenging to do yoga using the Zoom! I have to look down on the floor at the instructor in front of me on my MacBook. Since I have nobody around me to follow their moves in person, I have to use an iPad to my side when doing asanas like downward dog or warrior poses. The instructor types to me in a chat box if needed before or after the class. I also use Google LT and read auto captions – mostly in the start and the end of the class. It’s simpler for me to just follow moves of the instructor than to read her instructions in captions. Besides, my head is moving all the time and cannot see captions all the time during the class. Try to read captions upside down when doing a downward dog pose! Haha.

Issues with masks in terms of communication

Now that the lockdown is lifted slowly in phases, more people are eventually going out. The new normal is wearing masks and keeping social distance. It has been an ongoing issue in the deaf and hard of hearing community, especially with masks. Masks make it impossible for us to lipread. They make it harder even for us deaf people to follow sign language as it also involves facial expressions. So it will be my main concern when I go to a store, use public transportation, or even just walk around. Even if people don’t speak, I am used to seeing expressions on people’s faces that now would be covered by masks. Many people would also wear sunglasses in addition to masks which makes it even more difficult if not impossible to read facial expressions!

More and more deaf people are speaking about the need for clear masks. Since there’s a scarcity of FDA-approved clear masks, more people are also making them by hand. You may see many various ideas and executions of new types of clear masks – both professional and hand made. The main issue with clear masks is fog resistance that is important for deaf people in order to see a mouth clearly. That’s something that needs to be taken into consideration. Otherwise clear masks that fog up are no different than regular masks.

I wrote in detail about masks in my other articles:

Accessibility considerations for disabled people

Before wrapping up my article, I would like to share a video message by UN Secretary-General António Guterres about issues of disabled people. It was delivered on May 6, 2020, to launch the Policy Brief on Persons with Disabilities and COVID-19.

The following are excerpts of Guterres’ message:

  • People with disabilities are among the hardest hit by COVID-19. They face a lack of accessible public health information, significant barriers to implement basic hygiene measures, and inaccessible health facilities.”
  • “We must guarantee the equal rights of people with disabilities to access healthcare and lifesaving procedures during the pandemic.”
  • I urge Governments to place people with disabilities at the centre of COVID-19 response and recovery efforts and to consult and engage people with disabilities.  Persons with disabilities have valuable experience to offer of thriving in situations of isolation and alternate working arrangements.”
  • “Looking to the future, we have a unique opportunity to design and implement more inclusive and accessible societies to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.”
  • When we secure the rights of people with disabilities, we are investing in our common future.

Last year he launched “the United Nations Disability Inclusion Strategy to ensure the UN system is doing its part.”

The United Nations also created a page, COVID-19 Outbreak and Persons with Disabilities, listing various resources on people with disabilities and COVID 19 and resources from their partners and others.

I personally think that the pandemic made more people realize about the importance of accessibility for disabled people, the largest and the most ignored minority. The ADA – Americans with Disabilities Act was passed 30 years ago. Despite the law, many of us disabled people still experience discrimination and exclusion.

Here’s an excerpt from an article on Forbes website (3 Ways The COVID-19 Pandemic Could Change Disability Policies And Practices):

“The pandemic has generated some new attention to disabled people’s hardships, but not yet on what we actually need to be done. Once again we see the usual yawning gap between sympathy for disabled people, and caring about disability issues.”

I hope that the pandemic will make more people take accessibility seriously. Especially that the 30th anniversary of the ADA will happen in a few weeks – on July 26. There are 1.3 billion of us in the world – the population size of China! Our needs cannot be ignored or dismissed.

Want to learn more from a deaf consultant about how to improve accessibility for disabled people? Contact me.

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