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Caritas Deaf Service recently interviewed five Deaf and Hard of Hearing people to learn about their experiences during the pandemic. The result is a snapshot of their lives and the unique challenges currently facing Deaf people who rely on British Sign Language (BSL) and lip-reading to communicate.

Sarah Metcalfe from Caritas Deaf Service said: ‘As we continue to live with different levels of lockdowns and restrictions across the country, it is vital to think about how we can ensure that Deaf people are not left behind.’

The five people who shared their stories, Jack, Ruth, Frances, Teresa and Barbara*, are not all alike in their experiences. Teresa is a gardener, and has found herself enjoying ‘extra solitude’ and ‘more time for prayer and reflection’, while others in the group described how they have been missing trips to church, cinemas, restaurants and holidays. All were grateful for the technology with which they could keep in touch with their family and friends, although Jack missed going to the library where he used the computer for email correspondence.

Jack has continued to travel on public transport, and is appreciating the extra space. ‘I felt comfortable in either a bus or underground train due to social distancing’, he told us. Others were more nervous about going out, especially those with health issues who were shielding. Barbara told us it was ‘scary to go out first time, as I went by taxi feeling nervous to get my haircut… Watching people wearing masks still seems odd to me.’

All five individuals have experienced moments of real difficulty communicating with others. People wearing facemasks has been a big problem for those who rely on lip-reading. The interviewees reported that they would love to see more people wearing masks with a clear panel, or for people to simply take the time to step back to a safe distance and remove their masks before speaking.

The problem with facemasks has also been encountered with some health professionals. Jack told us how, ‘nurses forgot I was Deaf and continued to talk with masks on’. Procedural changes at GP surgeries, such as more consultations being carried out by phone, risk leaving Deaf people behind. Ruth was able to email her doctor about an ankle injury but found this unsatisfactory as she was simply told to ‘stay in bed and put my ankle up’. The doctor told her not go to hospital due to the high levels of coronavirus, which left Ruth feeling uncared for.

A recent survey by the charity SignHealth confirmed that issues like these are not uncommon. 74% percent of the deaf people who responded said they have found it more difficult to access healthcare during the pandemic. 89% of respondents were worried about being able to communicate with staff if they are hospitalised with coronavirus.

Frances contracted COVID-19 early on in the pandemic and is still recovering now. She felt completely abandoned by her GP. Thankfully she found the care she needed from a new GP and also from her allergy specialist who ‘would be in touch by WhatsApp several times a day, telling me what to do, what to take and one night when my breathing was so bad, she was texting every half an hour until midnight.’

But Frances also talks about the care and consideration she received from volunteers and friends, who held her in prayer. ‘When I was very depressed over losing my sense of taste completely, I put out a call for prayer on Facebook and within two hours, felt wrapped in the most amazing, uplifting sensation of love and peace.’

Teresa and Barbara highlighted an issue which Caritas Deaf Service has been concerned about since the beginning of the pandemic: the lack of BSL interpreters for UK Government announcements. ‘People felt left out about TV news’, said Barbara, and Teresa said she has written to the Government to ask, ‘why no BSL to back up a message for all?’, but received no answer.

The Caritas Deaf Service supports the ‘Where is the Interpreter?’ campaign, which has been prominent on social media. Michelle Roca, Director of Caritas Deaf Service, said: ‘Deaf people need information on equal terms and at the same time as hearing people. Scotland and Wales have both managed to provide interpreters for official announcements, why is it so difficult for England to do the same?’ After a petition failed to persuade the Government to provide live BSL interpretations for its coronavirus briefings, a group of Deaf people are now taking legal action.

Michelle continued: ‘This is a justice issue for the estimated 80,000 or more people in the UK for whom BSL is their first language. It is also a health issue. If Deaf people do not understand the rules regarding coronavirus restrictions, they could end up putting themselves and others at risk.’

In spite of these difficulties, the interviewees did experience some positive moments amidst the pandemic. Frances and Teresa have appreciated the slower pace of life and noticed the quieter, cleaner environment and Ruth has taken the opportunity to be more creative, making greetings cards and sewing. Barbara has enjoyed being able to chat online with her children and grandchildren, and playing games and quizzes.

Caritas Deaf Service is continuing to provide live stream Masses with BSL interpretation. However, the Deaf community has missed being able to get together. Caritas Deaf Service usually organises a busy schedule of Bible study sessions, retreats, support groups and signed Masses, serving dozens of people in the Diocese of Westminster and beyond. While much of this has been moved online, Deaf people have missed the community spirit that can be built when people are physically present together.

All of the Deaf people who were interviewed expressed a yearning for life to go back to normal, as well as their worries about the future. They hope that a vaccine will be found soon, and that lessons will be learned, not just about how to deal with viruses, but also about how to fully include Deaf people in all aspects of life, including a national emergency. As Ruth said in her interview, ‘I would like people to learn more about Deaf people as we are normal, same as hearing. Be kind.…Hearing people don’t need to be scared of Deaf people. We Deaf people are humans!’

Caritas Deaf Service is part of Caritas Westminster. You can find out more about Caritas Deaf Service here.

You can donate to Caritas Westminster here.

*The names of the five interviewees have been changed.

Images above include events which took place before the pandemic, including a group of Deaf people at a retreat to Aylesford Priory in 2019 and a signing choir at the Caritas Deaf Service retreat to Walsingham in 2019.