While the wearing of face masks and observing social distancing have been necessary to curb the spread of COVID-19, it has also presented a real challenge for the Deaf community and blind.
Husband and wife Bryan and Niobe Rodrigues of the Touch of Christ Catholic Deaf Community told Catholic News that this “new normal” has created a “new barrier”.
Bryan, who is Deaf, explained through the help of Niobe, who interpreted, that the wearing of face masks has now resulted in the Deaf community feeling even more isolated than they already feel.
“[we] already have the challenge of depending on sign language…, now we cannot use lip reading… it’s making communication a little difficult, so it’s an extra challenge,” Bryan said as he spoke to the fact that face mask prevents Deaf persons from recognising non-manual markers which consists of various facial expressions, head tilting, shoulder raising, mouthing, and similar signs that persons add to “signs” used in Sign Language.
“And with blind persons as well, they have their own challenges. Blind people need someone to walk alongside them. They are very tactile. They [officials] say cough into your elbows, but that is where blind persons put their hand if someone is leading them along,” Bryan said.
He revealed that members of the Deaf community have discussed among themselves their experiences of wearing face masks. He shared a story of one particular Deaf person who visited a store, which seemed to be very serious of enforcing the wearing of masks.
“And she tried to pull down her mask so that the person could lip read her and the person [employee] said ‘No, no, no, no you can’t do that here’ and then she [the customer] said, ‘Ok, well I will write’ and the person [employee] said ‘No, no, no, I’m not taking anything from you ….”
Bryan also shared of his own experience while working as a warehouse attendant at a local furniture store. Most times, he said, when wearing masks, it is very difficult to get persons to read his facial expressions.
He told Catholic News via WhatsApp video call that he initially purchased a clear face mask but eventually, he didn’t like it. He said, he actually received a “lot of flak for it”.
Bryan explained that Deaf persons are very “sensitive” and would prefer to not look different from everyone else who wears the standard face masks.
There is also the concern of being clearly identified as Deaf by wearing this type of face shield.
The first time he wore the clear mask, he had difficulty breathing.
Deaf persons, he said, are most interested in masks with “trendy” logos/symbols such as ‘Black Lives Matter’.
His coworker, also Deaf, prefers a N95 mask, which is a lot more comfortable and easier to breathe as it is not directly resting on one’s nose or mouth.
Challenges that still exist for the Deaf community
Niobe explained while at first glance Bryan does not look deaf, there is no standard look of a Deaf person. Some persons assume Bryan is Venezuelan by his skin tone.
He gave a scenario where he visited a local phone retailer to make a purchase.
“And he typed the text to give to one of the CSRs…it was in English. The rep[resentative] asked him if he was Venezuelan…”
Bryan mentioned that the stay-at-home order imposed by the lockdown posed a challenge for some Deaf persons as they prefer to surround themselves with other Deaf people.
One positive from the lockdown, was Bryan getting the attention of Living Water Community to be “more aware” of how they position the interpreter on screen. He felt the interpreter was “covered” by the banner across the screen. He expressed satisfaction that since then, it was “sorted out”.
He added that he would further like to see the interpreters’ “box” shift from portrait to a landscape setting.
Another challenge facing the Deaf community is that most persons believe there are only a “few” Deaf persons in Trinidad. He compared rights for the Deaf community and the LGBTQ+ community.
“Now they might be small in number as well but they always making noise…persons with disabilities always making noise but they [the government] keep saying they reviewing the policy but look how quickly LGBTQ+ persons get more or less recognition from the government and rights because they keep making noise,” he said.
Sign language is yet another challenge—it is not accepted as a recognised language locally, and one that should be taught in every class room. This, he said, greatly affects the education of Deaf persons.
There is also not an interpreter in each parish community. He said as president of Touch of Christ, they have taught many persons sign language but very few are interested in becoming interpreters.
By Kaelanne Jordan