SDHHS offering solutions to deaf and hard of hearing community during pandemic

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WATCH: Challenges in the deaf and hard of hearing community are being tackled with creative solutions. – May 22, 2020

Things have changed during the COVID-19 pandemic, but some people face more limitations than others.

Saskatchewan Deaf and Hard of Hearing Services (SDHHS) has adapted to ensure everyone can communicate during the pandemic.

It’s now common to wear PPE, including face masks, to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus. Speaking through a mask can muffle your voice, making it difficult to understand.

Communicating with masks is especially challenging for people who are deaf or hard of hearing, as American Sign Language (ASL) relies on both the movement of hands and different facial expressions.

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“It’s hard to tell the intensity of the message,” SDHHS early childhood and family services worker Robyn Holmes explained.

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“Is someone trying to be funny? Are they being serious? Because that’s the information that comes across on the face so sometimes there’s that limitation in terms of how much information is received.”

Some masks have a clear covering over the mouth to help with communication, but they still don’t convey a message completely.

READ MORE: College student designs masks specially made for deaf community

Technology has been integral for SDHHS to continue offering services like many other organizations. Zoom conference calls have become the way of delivering programming for people of all ages, including young children learning sign language.

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“Deaf kids would be very very visual. They’d want to read a book, but now we’re using screens so it’s a little different, you have to make those adjustments but we’re doing the best that we can so with everything there’s a positive and a negative,” SDHHS sign support professional Nicole Musey said.

People who are hard of hearing or deaf in hospital likely don’t have access to translators to relay important information back to them.

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SDHHS has sent out iPads to hospitals across Saskatchewan, featuring an app with interpreters readily available from across the country, and another called Ava.

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“It’s a direct link from voice to text and it just basically transcribes what people are saying that you know a person is able to read the English script,” Holmes said about Ava.

With all of the challenges faced by those who are deaf or hard of hearing, there’s still been some silver lining during the pandemic.

In some cases, families have visited loved ones outside a window while they’re stuck inside. For people who know ASL, communicating is easy through a window as restricted sound isn’t an issue when using sign language.

READ MORE: Interpreting the crisis: Saskatchewan’s deaf community hopes for continued inclusion

There has also been better representation for the deaf community over the past few months.

Bill C-81, an act to ensure a barrier-free Canada, was passed last year. ASL interpreters have been at provincial and federal announcements and updates so deaf people can have important updates at the same time as everyone else.

“The general population is getting a view of what it’s like to see an interpreter and they’re very enamored by what is happening with the interpreter there and it’s becoming an educational tool and it’s normalizing it. It’s not like something odd and foreign,” Musey said.

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SDHHS hopes representation in mainstream media will encourage more people to learn ASL.

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