The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the barriers experienced by people with hearing and vision loss, according to Travis Morgan.
The Vice-Chair for the City of Greater Sudbury’s Accessibility Panel was born deaf and makes use of a hearing aid to manage daily life in the public sphere.
Since the pandemic began, he has not only been more isolated from his community, but communication with others has become much more difficult.
Face masks, which are meant to protect the public from transmission of the COVID-19 virus, have become a physical barrier that has affected his ability to navigate social situations effectively and even forced Morgan to suspend his education.
“I’ve been a bit more isolated because it’s difficult to talk to people in public due to the masks, so my social life has seriously declined. I’ve also had to suspend my college education because we would be required to wear masks for labs,” he said.
“My program requires me to be able to pick up on the emotions of others, and without the ability to see their faces, that skill is extremely difficult even with an interpreter.”
Morgan, who has lived and worked in Whitefish for most of his life, has found that while visiting public spaces in Lively, like grocery stores, most people are willing to be “helpful and accommodating” by backing up and removing their mask to facilitate communication.
However, in some public spaces, that’s not always possible.
“When I have to use an intercom to get past a locked door at the hospital or city hall, that’s when I run into a wall, literally. Medical staff has been helpful with trying to communicate, and I appreciate the apologies and the workarounds we try to do at the Espanola medical centre, but it’s still stressful,” he said.
“Part of the difficulty I’ve noticed is that even my speech-to-text technology has trouble interpreting people through a face mask, and it leaves me burned out after trying to guess what was said and not get frustrated. I do understand that everyone is frustrated right now, though, and that helps me a little bit because I don’t feel alone with some of these stressful situations.”
People who experience hearing loss are not the only ones who have struggled with some of Public Health’s new health and safety regulations.
A number of people experiencing vision loss across the country have expressed difficulty practicing physical distancing in public spaces or using hand sanitizer dispensers effectively because they cannot locate new additions or see physical distancing markers like arrows on the floor.
Samantha Marren, communications specialist for Deafblind Ontario Services, highlighted the fact that social distancing is nearly impossible for individuals with deafblindness because touch is essential for communication.
“While social distancing has proven to be one of the most effective ways to reduce the spread of COVID-19, for people with deafblindness, it means no communication, guidance, safety or compassion,” she said.
“We have over 250 intervenors across Ontario who are professionally trained to act as the eyes and ears of those who experience deafblindness through the sense of touch. They provide visual and auditory information through various forms of sign language, some of which are tactile.”
Deafblind Ontario Services provides accessible residential and customized support services to clients across the province, including two locations in the Sudbury area.
During the provincial lockdown, the organization was declared an essential service by the Ontario government. Throughout the spring, they continued to serve the province’s deaf-blind population, which is estimated to be over 211,000 people.
“The people that we support experience a combination of vision and hearing loss, and many of them experience other medical challenges, so it’s very important for us that we’re keeping COVID-19 out of our locations because we serve a vulnerable population,” said Marren.
“But social distancing has looked a little bit different for us during this pandemic. We have taken a universal precautions approach to infection control, which means we’ve reduced contact between intervenors and clients and made sure that we sanitize after every interaction, and of course, everyone wears masks. We’ve been very fortunate that we have not had a case of COVID-19 at any of our locations so far.”
Although these additional barriers have been added in order to try and protect the physical health of the community, Morgan hopes that the community can work together to find ways around the social barriers imposed by public health measures.
“This crisis has highlighted the barriers people with hearing loss experience, and I hope that we learn from this and move forward to advocate better, proper language support, especially for children with hearing loss,” he said.
As the school year quickly approaches, Morgan is worried that many children with hearing loss will suffer at school because many rely on lip-reading to communicate. In the future, he hopes that an emphasis will be put on teaching sign language.
“I did not realize how much of my communication with others is dependent on lip-reading until the crisis broke out. I feel burned out just ordering food at the deli. I am worried that children are going to feel isolated as school starts because speech and lip-reading gets distorted with masks. People who are born deaf don’t have the ability to remember sound, so oral communication is even tougher for us,” he said.
“I just want people to be aware that school is going to be stressful for children with hearing loss this fall. Knowledge and use of interpreters for sign language in class would be extremely useful to students right now.”
In public places, there could also be adjustments made so that things are more accessible. Morgan personally appreciates the face shields that are being used by some grocery store staff.
“I haven’t had any issues understanding those speakers,” he said.
Morgan also asks the general public to be patient and understanding.
“Don’t get angry at us. That’s extremely disheartening when I say I am sorry, I need to read lips, and I get yelled at. I may have a barrier to seeing your expressions, but it’s still pretty easy to see someone angry and frustrated. Volume doesn’t mean I will understand you better. People who lip-read need clear voices, clear lip-reading and proper pronunciation of words,” he said.
“Getting angry and yelling at us makes us feel embarrassed and discouraged. It makes things worse. You can back up and lower your mask, if possible, but please don’t give us annoyed faces. We cannot help it and it’s not our fault.”
By: Colleen Romaniuk, Sudbury Star, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter