Fri | Feb 26, 2021

MASK HURDLE - Deaf find innovative means as PPE affects communication in tough year

Published:Saturday | January 2, 2021 | 12:11 AMJudana Murphy/Gleaner Writer
Kimberley Marriott-Blake, executive director of the Jamaica Association for the Deaf.
Kimberley Marriott-Blake, executive director of the Jamaica Association for the Deaf.

With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic came the rise in wearing protective masks, which abruptly excised half of the face from communication, creating a challenge for members of the deaf community.

The covering deemed a critical barrier to guard against SARS-CoV-2, the virus which causes COVID-19, removed visual cues such as lip reading or using sign language that the deaf community, including people who are hard of hearing, heavily rely on to communicate, especially with the majority of Jamaicans not knowing sign language.

“It has been a tough [year],” executive director of the Jamaica Association for the Deaf (JAD), Kimberley Marriott-Blake, told The Gleaner, summing up the deaf community’s experience in 2020.

According to the World Health Organization, more than five per cent of the world’s population has disabling hearing loss. Locally, thh figure stands between 50,000 and 70,000, Marriott-Blake said.

Despite the challenges, the deaf have been finding creative ways to navigate the new environment, she said.

“One challenge that has come up is the reality of not wanting to put yourself at risk but also wanting to communicate. Technology has been very helpful, as some of them take out their phone and type what they want to ask in the Notes app and then it requires the person responding to either type back, or depending on the set-up, if the person is behind a screen or a little bit distanced, they can remove their mask and respond,” Marriott-Blake explained.

She added that with the pandemic forcing many companies to make their services accessible without face-to-face interaction, such moves have aided the deaf. However, a lot of these advancements have been centred mainly in the Corporate Area and Montego Bay and, as a result, counterparts in rural parishes are still somewhat disadvantaged depending on the service they want to access.

“Some supermarkets and wholesales give them the option of writing the items they need on a paper and the attendant ticks off the items that they have, so they know what they are gonna get,” Marriott-Blake said of their shopping experience.

Like the wider Jamaica, students across the 11 deaf schools had to transition to remote learning due to the pandemic, but it has not been without hurdles.

“Not being able to connect with our students has been a major concern for us. There are quite a few of our children who are in families who don’t sign, so them not having sign language at home and not being able to connect in an online class is very worrying,” she pointed out, adding that these these students are also lacking psychosocial support, and though efforts are being made by guidance counsellors to have sessions with them, they do not all have Internet access.

Sign-language interpreter

While 2020 brought about new challenges for the Jamaican deaf community, a major plus for the year was the inclusion of a sign-language interpreter for Jamaica House and COVID-19-related press conferences.

“We became a model for many Caribbean islands. It made a major difference because it ensured that critical information about the new protocols, expectations of the population and curfew hours were shared,” the JAD executive director reflected.

“It was a pointed means of saying, as a community, you matter. It’s easy for the deaf community to go unrecognised because the disability is not in your face; it’s not someone who is using a wheelchair or a cane. For quite some time, the deaf community has been an assumed community, that because of their deafness, they don’t have logical competence,” she explained.

She added that such a move has expressed the community’s competence and helped to elevate the population’s appreciation and expectation of the deaf.

For 2021, her wish is that the community will be further considered in such a manner in day-to-day happenings.

“We will be in a better position to get information to the community, provide support to them and empower them to make decisions,” Marriott-Blake said.

judana.murphy@gleanerjm.com