COVID-19’s Impact on Communication Access

ASL Version

It is so hard to believe that almost two weeks ago was what may be my last on-site interpreting job for a while.  Sadly, that last job left me gobsmacked. It was in a huge medical office building. I felt like a rat trying to navigate an unending maze. I was unable to even find the directory! Sign languages should be getting accolades nowadays because we can communicate easily from six feet away. I approached the Information Desk while maintaining a distance from the person at the desk. Unfortunately, she could not understand my gestures asking where a specific department was located. Gestures failed but I had a backup plan.  In olden days, deaf people would resort to a notepad and pen to communicate with people unable to understand sign language or visual gestures. Nowadays, we have effective apps on our smartphones such as Big and Cardizilla. I typed my question in the Big app on my iPhone with its black background and thick white text. As I lifted my hand to show her my phone screen, she screamed at me, “STAY AWAY!!!!” I felt mortified upon feeling eyes surrounding us in the lobby. I mouthed, “I need your help.” She shook her head as I tried to point to my phone but she was not having it at all.  I took off through that rat’s maze of a building to find the department on my own. As I walked in, I was nervous about approaching the receptionist or how she would react to my attempts at communicating despite a barricade of chairs set-up in the area between her counter and me. I typed the patient’s name on my Big app and showed the screen to her. She smiled, looked the name up on her computer, and wrote big on a piece of paper, “the appointment is cancelled.”  

This experience left me reeling. In an instant, COVID-19 has impacted how deaf people communicate with non-deaf people. Not always, but often, non-deaf people have willingly communicated with deaf people using paper, pen, then text as technologies evolved. Deaf people, over time, adapted to navigate nondeaf spaces. And as we’re struck by a global pandemic, I wondered where the humanity was in this situation as communication barriers were thrown up without a thought to alternative access pathways? DeafBlind and other DeafDisabled people have talked about distantism. This reluctance to have closeness, to have physical closeness to disabled people, is not new. COVID-19 has reminded us that disabled people’s humanity and need for communication access, along with many other issues for disabled people such as access to ventilators and health care, teeter on the edge of goodwill. On distantism, here’s some wisdom from a DeafBlind person, Mindy Dill.

COVID-19 has further perpetuated ableism. How will ableism manifest in the post-COVID world? We can still connect and communicate during this trying time. Efforts to maintain communication access is an act of love in the spirit of Mia Mingus’ work on access intimacy.  The burden should not be left on disabled individuals to figure how to adapt our communication strategies in the current state of affairs.  Abled individuals have a duty to engage with us to figure that out. 

Access in Chaos

Our world has been turned upside down; our lives are likely not going to return to normal for a long while. As people are urged to remain home and practice social distancing to #FlattenTheCurve, sign language interpreters continue to answer the call for access. They put the health and well-being of themselves and their families at risk to show up and ensure that deaf people receive access. As we applaud and thank those who continue to show up everyday- in hospitals and medical clinics, grocery stores, pharmacies, let us also remember those who work to provide access in a critical time. 

Access is a loving act. And staying home if you feel sick is also an act of love. We thank all of those who can show up to provide access for doing so; and all of those who stay home when ill. 

We hope all of you remain healthy and safe in this difficult time. Wishing you good health and fortune.

The Manualists