Deaf Community Facing Digital Isolation While Social Distancing
Sat, April 10, 2021

Deaf Community Facing Digital Isolation While Social Distancing


The deaf community, which comprises deaf and hard of hearing individuals, for instance, are facing extreme isolation while they are in lockdown. / Photo by via Shutterstock


Many countries have imposed an emergency measure called lockdown to curb the spread of Covid-19, instructing people to stay in their homes as much as possible and maintain social distancing of at least a 1-meter (3 feet) distance between oneself and anyone. However, research has shown that people in isolation are at increased risk of developing mental health problems, such as anxiety or depression. If the isolation is already hard for people without disabilities, how about PWDs and their families?


Lockdown affecting the deaf community

The deaf community, which comprises deaf and hard of hearing individuals, for instance, are facing extreme isolation while they are in lockdown. Deaf journalist and campaigner Liam O'Dell shared that if one gets lost in large amounts of information during the pandemic, it can be more overwhelming when many of it is inaccessible to deaf people like himself.

O'Dell observed that in the UK, Prime Minister Boris Johnson stands in the podium in Downing Street almost every day with medical and scientific experts by his side. Yet, one person is missing that is important for the deaf community and that is the British Sign Language (BSL) interpreter that should supposedly make the updates accessible to deaf individuals. While the deaf community noticed that BBC News channel provide BSL for daily government briefings on the coronavirus crisis, it would be more effective if the British PM himself was to have a BSL interpreter present during the briefing so the deaf community can follow while they are at home waiting for the news.

There was even a Parliament petition recently calling for a sign language interpretation for all emergency briefings. The petition has already reached the required 10,000 signatures so it can receive a government response. It is not just a “huge win” for their community, but also “vital” for them, said O'Dell.


Being deaf itself is already a kind of “social distancing.”  / Photo by GUNDAM_Ai via Shutterstock


Sign language interpreter, not a special treatment

Having a BSL interpreter during briefings on the pandemic is not about providing special treatment to the deaf community but “basic equality.” Conservative peer Lord Bethell said in a statement that “there are a large number of groups who deserve special treatment” but such a message has sent a different message to the deaf community: the government is not taking the issue seriously. It can tap into a wider challenge to deaf people in the coming weeks too as work, entertainment, and information move online.

An awareness campaign has already been launched by O'Dell to make digital content more accessible to deaf people or hard of hearing individuals. It is such a case as he co-works or chats with his friends through a live stream. Online communication already presents technical difficulties, what more if a person has poor hearing?

Theater teams and TV stars have likewise started perform arts online and brought theater to social-distancing audiences for free. Some deaf performers have issued reminders online to make the shows more accessible to the deaf community. “It’s vital that deaf people like me aren’t isolated digitally, too,” they said.


Digital isolation

The deaf community is calling on the public not to be isolated digitally because they could be cut out of a social conversation or event, missing a key piece of information among their group. He cited another deaf journalist Charlie Swinbourne, who highlighted the parallel between living with deafness and social distancing. Being deaf itself is already a kind of “social distancing.” They cannot easily communicate with the people around them and, in some cases, even those closest to them. Now conversation likewise moves online, which is the reason why they are speaking against digital isolation too.

English broadcaster Jeremy Clarkson recently shared a photo of the Prime Minister addressing the nation while a sign language interpreter stood behind him. He took a screenshot of the briefing and poked fun at the interpreter who was sticking her tongue out. “Can those who sign tell me what on earth Boris is saying here?” Clarkson captioned. Fans commented with all suggestions, such as “stay home and drink Coronas.” Someone wrote “Thanks for making me laugh! I needed that!” Although the broadcaster was only trying to lift the mood as the Prime Minister told the public to stay at home and stop going to theaters, bars, and pubs, O'Dell said that it's hard if celebrities with a huge audience don't take such a matter seriously.

The deaf journalist said that if the society, as a whole, is going to address the kind of isolation that many deaf people are likely going to feel in the coming months, the change has to begin with the government by making the briefings more accessible.



The proportion of languages used by deaf students in the UK

Using a total of 36,616 respondents, database company Statista shared the proportion of languages used by deaf students in educational settings in the UK in 2017. Of deaf students in England, 66% English or Welsh and 8% British/Irish sign language (BSL). In Scotland, 75% use spoken English or Welsh, 6% British/Irish sign language, 1% other combination, and 19% of spoken English or Welsh together with signed support. In Wales, only 7% use British/Irish sign language while 1% use the same sign language in Northern Ireland as 82% use spoken English or Welsh.

In Zimbabwe, the partial lockdown has also affected deaf people. Voluntary organization Deaf Zimbabwe Trust, which promotes the rights and interest of the deaf and hard of hearing people in Zimbabwe, published a reflection of the partial lockdown on PWDs. Most of these people with disabilities are involved in work in the informal sector or petty vending. Some sell sweets in the street while others beg. The money that they earn daily is not enough to purchase bulk foods so they have something stored during a lockdown. This is why the organization called on the public to also think of the challenges faced by PWDs during times of crisis when more people tend to be more inward-looking by securing themselves.



Hearing loss and deafness: statistics

Around 466 million people in the world have disabling hearing loss and 34 million of these are children, according to The World Health Organization. By 2050, it is estimated that more than 900 million will have disabling hearing loss. About 60% of childhood hearing loss is due to preventable causes. There is an 83% gap in hearing aid need and use and only 17% of those who could benefit from using a hearing aid use one.

In the US, about 2 to 3 out of every 1,000 children are born with a detectable level of hearing loss in one or both ears and more than 90% of deaf kids are born to hearing parents, the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD) shares. Hearing loss is common among adults aged 20-69.  Bureau of Labor Statistics further shares that the demand for Sign Language Interpreters is expected to increase by 46% from 2012 to 2022, which is an increase of 29,300 jobs.

Isolation is challenging for many of us, but we should also recognize the needs of other groups of the population too, such as the deaf community. This way, we will not cut them out from updates and conversations.