Jennylee Bruno, a deaf author and mother of five, was staying in Health Central Hospital in Ocoee, Florida with shortness of breath, dry cough, and a burning sensation in her lungs. A nurse set up a video screen to connect Bruno with an American Sign Language interpreter, and minutes later, Bruno’s worst fear was confirmed: she had COVID-19. As the doctor explained that they could only ease the pain, the video feed froze, unfroze, and froze again. Bruno sobbed.
For two weeks, Bruno remained isolated in a coronavirus ward. She can read lips, but everyone around her wore a mask. Her video interpreting feed would constantly freeze because the hospital internet was so busy. She relied on communicating with doctors and nurses via short notes written on whiteboards, but sometimes they would forget and just start speaking.
In the United States, 48 million people are deaf or hard of hearing, and the Hearing Loss Association of America predicts that over 650,000 deaf or hard of hearing people may go to hospitals for COVID-19 treatment. Unfortunately, communication resources for deaf people have always been scarce in health care. While the Americans with Disabilities Act requires hospitals to provide appropriate sign language interpretation services, many medical providers ignore the law and do not prioritize these accommodations, relying instead on pen and paper or faulty virtual interpretation devices. These problems have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has created deadly consequences. Because hospitals prohibit in-person interpreters or family members from going inside, it has become even harder for deaf patients to receive adequate interpretation services. To limit contact, doctors and nurses wear masks and speak behind windows or curtains, which create extra barriers in the communication of crucial, life-saving information.
Because of mandatory face mask orders, deaf people like Bruno have struggled to communicate. Deaf people rely on visual cues and lip-reading to understand that they are being spoken to, but masks block the lips. Thankfully, there is an alternative. The Safe’N’Clear communicator mask is the first transparent mask that has been approved by the Food and Drug Administration. The mask has a clear window over the mouth, and when it is worn by a doctor or nurse, communication with a deaf patient improves because the lips are visible. Even better, it becomes possible to see a comforting smile. It has proven to be an effective solution, but it is seldom used. Hospitals must make these masks available for doctors treating deaf patients.
Bruno’s struggles are not limited to the hospital. When she turns on the TV to arm herself with the latest COVID-19 information, she is faced with meaningless video broadcasting. Much of the information about the pandemic has been disseminated through press briefings and media conferences without ASL interpretation, barring deaf people from critical knowledge. One month into the COVID-19 outbreak in the United States, there were still no interpreters in White House press briefings. Deaf organizations in New York sued their governor, Andrew Cuomo, for failing to have a live ASL interpreter. Two weeks after the lawsuit and two months after the COVID-19 outbreak, Cuomo’s office finally provided an interpreter.
Subtitles for these TV broadcasts are rarely provided; even then, they are not a substitute for sign language interpretation. For most deaf people, sign language is their first language, and English is their second. Interpretation is a priority for ensuring that Deaf people have access to critical information.
Despite this tough time, the Deaf community is finding ways to adapt and improve conditions. Petitions and lawsuits have led to numerous press conferences providing interpreters, increasing access for the deaf. Global and national Deaf organizations are guiding deaf people through this challenging time. For example, the World Federation of the Deaf has been leading the COVID-19 Access Now campaign and working with the World Health Organization. The Hearing Loss Association of America has provided guidelines for deaf people, such as having smartphone interpretation apps ready when visiting a hospital.
The lack of communication accommodations comes from systemic ignorance of the Deaf community by governments and health care systems. Bruno’s experience highlights the experience of every deaf person’s medical encounters, and the COVID-19 pandemic has only aggravated these issues. While equality for deaf and hard-of-hearing people is written in law, it is not implemented in practice. During an interview with the Deaf Professional Arts Network, Bruno signed, “A few times, they ignored my calls for help through the button. I was very, very sick and wanted someone to help me. They ignored me. I felt…It was awful. I called my daughter on FaceTime to help me call the nurse for me. It was awful.”
Much work needs to be done to ensure that deaf people have resources that provide equal opportunities in navigating a health care system. Interpreting service is a basic human right that is too often ignored. Adding interpretations in press briefings is possible and extremely helpful, but few include them. Hospitals provide inadequate resources and training for communication with deaf patients. Even when simple solutions such as providing live interpreters and Safe’N’Clear masks exist, health care systems fail to implement them.
These problems are not unique to the United States, and many deaf people in other countries face more communication challenges in less fortunate medical systems. As millions of deaf people around the world share Bruno’s experiences during this COVID-19 pandemic, more efforts must be made to resolve these issues.
Luckily, hospitals, health organizations, and governments are responding to the strong advocacy of the World Federation of the Deaf and the Deaf community. By increasing awareness of this issue and holding groups accountable, deaf people will prevail in the fight for equal treatment in health care systems. We are far from a world where Bruno can receive dependable interpretation services and feel comfortable seeking treatment, but hopefully, this period will create momentum for improving accessibility for deaf people everywhere.
Second Place: Lydia Qin, from Los Angeles, California, United States, for “Silent Isolation.” Lydia attends North Hollywood High School and is in 10th Grade.
Lydia Qin is currently a rising junior at North Hollywood High School. She enjoys cooking, playing ultimate frisbee, and reading historical fiction. She has a special passion for math and enjoys teaching young students in her local math circle. Lydia came across the Writing for Peace contest on the internet and saw it as a way to express her interests in journalism and activism, which she has gained from her experiences in Speech and Debate. Her enjoyment of Broadway musicals led her to discover Deaf musical productions, and she has always wanted to learn more about Deaf culture and American Sign Language since then. She believes that compassion, along with an understanding of other cultures, is vital for achieving human justice. She is a supporter of the youth-led movements surrounding climate change and school shootings. Lydia is also a strong advocate for gender equality in STEM, which she feels deeply affected by. Writing for Peace has given Lydia confidence in her writing and motivation to continue to share her feelings with words. She is honored that her piece has been recognized alongside the works of fellow teenagers around the globe who live outside her small world of Los Angeles.
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