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How coronavirus lockdown hits deaf people harder than most

How coronavirus lockdown hits deaf people harder than most


News article from the London Evening Standard


Coronavirus lockdown has been hard for everyone. People are worried about safety, stuck inside or going out to work in a pandemic – and cut off from family and friends.

Most people have the option of speaking to friends on the phone or with a video call at a moment’s notice. But for the 12 million people in the UK who are deaf or who have some kind of hearing loss, this option is much less viable.

Clara O’Shea, a trainee dentist with hearing loss, said the restrictions had left her feeling isolated.

She told the Standard: “Obviously we’re all in lockdown but it can probably be even lonelier for people with hearing loss. We can’t necessarily just pick up the phone and speak to our friends.

“When you struggle to hear, it makes you physically exhausted,” she added.

Conversations at a distance can be a challenge for people with hearing loss (AP)

Some of the social ties that help the deaf community combat loneliness in normal times have also been severed by the lockdown.

Liam O’Dell, a deaf activist and journalist, said: “Deaf social clubs, which are a big part of the community… have had to shut things down completely or move things online, which has had a really detrimental impact on people.”

But he added that another isolating factor for people with hearing loss was the lack of accessible information.

The BBC uses a British Sign Language interpreter overlaid on its broadcast of the daily coronavirus briefing and Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has one, but the Downing Street briefings were criticised for doing the same. Activists had claimed it breached an equalities law, and launched legal proceedings last month.

The Government has said it is committed to getting health information to everyone in the UK, regardless of disability.

“I think for a lot of people they probably don’t want to talk about the dreaded… coronavirus but we also have to talk about it.

“When other people…. have the privilege of getting the latest information, deaf people are probably still falling behind because they don’t have that access.”

Roger Wicks, policy and campaigns director for charity Action on Hearing Loss, agreed.

People with hearing loss may be feeling especially isolated during coronavirus lockdown(Getty Images)

He said: “Briefings have to be accessible – it’s very important that there’s a British Sign Language interpreter.”

“We have to make health services accessible to all.”

And a recent development may worsen the situation for the UK’s deaf people.

The UK has been slower than many other countries in asking people to wear face masks and coverings. But the Government recently advised people to cover their faces when in busy places, including public transport, and masks are becoming more and more visible on the street.

The usefulness of face masks remains unclear – but for many deaf people and those with hearing loss who rely on lipreading to hold a conversation, they present a new challenge.

Louise Goldsmith, a profoundly deaf blogger, told the Standard that the growing use of face masks – and the need to keep two metres away from other people – was limiting her independence.

She said: “I was waiting in the queue for the checkout at the supermarket and the person behind the till told me to come forward.

“But because they were wearing a mask, I couldn’t understand them and I was just standing there for ages. It was pretty embarrassing.”

Action on Hearing Loss is pushing the Government to clarify what kind of face coverings people can wear that will have less of an effect on people with hearing loss – including masks with clear panels over the mouth.

These clear masks are not appropriate for medical use and are not available in the UK at the moment, Action on Hearing loss said.

And Ms Goldsmith said that she doubted that the clear masks would be much use.

“I’ve heard that when people speak and breathe the masks can fog up and it gets much harder to read their lips,” she said.

She added: “But it’s a good start and hopefully something to build on in future.”

Deafness is sometimes called “the hidden disability” and the impact of coronavirus lockdown on people with hearing loss seems to have gone largely unnoticed.

But neither Action on Hearing Loss nor other deaf activists are demanding an end to the lockdown or for people to stop wearing face masks. They just want the Government and everyone else in the UK to speak more clearly.