Deaf Community

Liaisons:   VT Association of the Deaf, VT Center for Independent Living
The following summarized comments are the opinions and observations of Deaf community members in the Summer of 2020.

Environment (Air/Water/Waste/Outdoor Access)

  • Concern about Covid spreading through service animals

Economy (Jobs/Safety/Education)

  • Loss of jobs during pandemic led to economic insecurity, using savings to survive.
  • Community members helped each other access resources and information involving economics, since not everyone had access to the internet.
  • One Deaf participant started a new job during the pandemic, but was not properly onboarded with safety information to understand how to stay safe at work.
  • Masks covering people’s mouths made lip reading impossible. It was difficult for Deaf individuals at work trying to assist clients with masks on. They resorted to texting to communicate. Some bought clear masks for colleagues to use at work:

“I’ve been put in the position many times where I’ve had to say I am Deaf. I need to read your lips. Your mask is in the way. I can’t hear, I can’t understand you. I don’t hear you. I’ve been in that position without having to say it many times.”

  • Deaf parents experienced new challenges with communication regarding their children’s education during the pandemic:

“Being a Deaf parent of children who go to a public school with non-Deaf teachers, I haven’t had the access to be as involved in their education because of the technology challenges, because of just the way everything is done in a new way. And we weren’t prepared for accessibility in the educational system.”

“I was missing some updates from the teachers, you know, like what they’re doing and what I need to help them with. And I think a lot of that was because I’m Deaf. And so they just didn’t know how to do that. And that was a problem.  So it feels like it’s almost like a bad game of telephone that I’m just missing out.”

**Accessibility Solution: Other students and teachers wearing clear masks allowed for lip reading. Students purchased clear masks to be helpful to their Deaf peers.

Food & Transportation

  • There was a noticeable increase in food prices during the pandemic. Many participants noted the need to do closer budgeting to afford the food they wanted to purchase. Participants were shocked that the government food assistance was being cut in the midst of the pandemic, when food prices were rising:

“I noticed that they were cutting back my food stamp allowance and that was a surprise. In the middle of a pandemic, when prices are going up and it’s harder to find food. It didn’t seem like it made sense. I’m not earning much at this job, like three hundred dollars a week or something. So it seemed like a strange time to cut back government benefits.”

  • Higher food prices led to a need for discount shopping, however, checking different stores to do price comparisons led to increased health risks.
  • Certain areas had better grocery services than others. Some communities had curbside only pickup, others had volunteers from the community doing grocery shopping for high risk individuals:

“There were a lot of options out there within the state of Vermont that I wish had become more standard through the state and they weren’t. It was just a pocket of wherever you were at the time.”

  • Free bagged breakfasts and lunches provided by the schools were very appreciated.
  • Difficulty communicating in stores, especially with masks restricting lip reading ability:

“If I need something in a store, specifically where can I find it now, it’s a matter of having to text it or show it on my phone screen for somebody to be able to help me whenever I’m going through somewhere.”


All of our Deaf participants shared stories of lack of communication or interpretation services available to them at hospitals and healthcare centers:

  • One participant shared a story of needing to go to the hospital during the pandemic, being in pain, and not receiving timely interpretation services.  They pointed out the need for training of healthcare staff to recognize and respond to Deaf patients:

“I was in a lot of pain. I couldn’t just stand there and have this weird gestural conversation about what was going on. And so they should have understood I was Deaf. They should have immediately brought in some form of communication. They should know they should be trained. They should have a person there who’s responsible for communication rather than me having to wait for really no reason just so that they could communicate with me. I was in pain. I was in a hospital. They should have been able to treat me.”

  • One participant shared that they went to the hospital and due to Covid protocols, they were not allowed to touch the hospital’s technology to type communications. After communicating with six staff members, the hospital understood they needed an interpreter:

“I had an appointment and I said again and again and again I need an interpreter. And what they were doing was they would have a video remote interpreter. We went in and explained via text on the phone that I am Deaf and they were not comfortable. It was such an awkward communication. You know, they didn’t want me to touch their technology, so I tried to hand them my technology. Finally, the sixth person, why would it take six people to finally get someone to listen to me and understand that I can’t speech read to you with the mask on. And I can’t hear you because I’m Deaf. It took an enormous amount of time and effort to get the hospital to understand.”

  • One participant shared a stressful experience at the dentist, and was frightened by not being able to lip read due to masks. They handed her a paper to write on even though she could use her voice and speak, and it was clear they were not trained to assist Deaf people:

“Just going to the dentist was really unbearable. They have masks on. I can tell they’re communicating, but I have no idea what’s happening. And it’s frightening. You’re helpless in a chair. They’re working on your mouth. It’s just more stressful. I told her I was Deaf and she gave me a blank piece of paper. But she didn’t write anything on it. So I was like, what do you want me to do? Like, I obviously can speak to you.” 

**Suggestions:  Healthcare workers need training in how to respond to Deaf people in their care.  Trainings should be designed by Deaf people. 

Housing & Energy

  • Concern over being able to maintain affordable housing as people move to VT and cost of housing increases

Emergency Communications & Equal Access

“If you have an emergency, you can’t contact anyone without Internet access as a Deaf individual.”

“My experience during this has not been easy for me. The mask covering someone’s face, there is absolutely no communication that way. If we need to be able to read someone’s lips, how are we doing that? It’s just impossible.”

“There’re more barriers everywhere during Covid interactions with each person. They just don’t understand. And it’s harder for them to make things accessible for me. I want equal access. I want to have the same kind of experience that people who are not experiencing hearing loss or Deafness, but that’s missing. I’m not able to have a comparable experience.”

  • Clear masks were helpful in order to see mouths moving for lip reading purposes. Participants wished clear masks would have been made more accessible to the community at large:

“It would be nice if they would have made those masks with clear partitions accessible to people if they passed them out so that Deaf people could benefit from that because we interact with people all day who are not Deaf, but we still need to read their lips.”

  • VT Association for the Deaf had concerns about access to information from the beginning of the pandemic, and pushed for resources to be shared on Facebook and other ways outside of the internet, like word of mouth, texting, mailing letters, and Deaf friends sharing information with each other:

“So we also had to figure out ways to keep the Deaf community aware of what was happening outside of using technology, you know, hearing people can just talk to each other and they see what’s happening and they have that access. But as Deaf individuals, we have to have that view and we have to have that direct sight to be able to know what’s going on. So we had to really focus on being able to do that visually and not just relying on somebody hearing about it.”

  • Information being transferred to the Deaf community was limited at the beginning of the pandemic, since they rely on being able to see or read the information:

“So we did not have those essential contacts and information that we needed at the very beginning, we all missed out on that because that information was not there or it was misinformation. For example, if we got behind on our bills, how would we be able to take care of that?”

  • Interpretation at press conferences was inconsistent. VT NAD had to submit a petition with over 200 signatures to get ASL interpreters at the press conferences about the pandemic:

“We have to remind them over and over again, we still need an interpreter for this press conference. There’s still a pandemic. And it’s unbelievable that they would do that even after we got it rolling. You know, not everybody can read captions. Not everybody understands typed English.” 

  • One participant gave a description of their timeline of realizing they needed to take precautions due to the pandemic:

“I remember thinking, It’s no big deal, I’m not going to believe all this stuff. But then I saw people aren’t coming out as much. And then everybody started wearing masks and then I started to understand. I noticed businesses and churches and schools were closing at strange times, and that’s when I started to think, oh, something’s going on, like, why aren’t you going to school? Why aren’t people going to church? But I did notice that they were doing Facebook live postings. And then later they were posting information on the Vermont NAD. And that’s when I started to really understand what was going on.”

  • Deaf participants were used to using video calls, zoom, Facebook, Facetime, etc. for regular communication:

“Again, we’re very visual. The Deaf community is very used to [using] video phones. We have Facebook, we have Zoom. My classes, everything is technologically based right now to be able to visually see each other.”

  • Video phone calls require high-speed internet, so many Deaf individuals are still using T.T.Y., an outdated technology, to make calls:

“So people who live in the rural area, they’re still using T.T.Y. and outdated technology. But they have no choice because they don’t have high enough Internet speed, even if they could afford it. They have to use a T.T.Y. So everything is just so much slower and less accessible, but they have no other option.”

  • Reliable internet is crucial for sign language to come through in an uninterrupted manner. Several participants reported difficulty in affording reliable internet service:

“The fact that not all Deaf people are able to afford Internet access. So even if we were provided with interpreters, we didn’t have the access [or] ability to watch the news as it was being delivered. And there was no immediate delivery of free or discounted Internet access to those of us who live in areas where you can afford it or high speed Internet is not available sufficiently enough for sign language to come through and be useful.”

  • Some were aware of programs to help with the cost of internet, but did not know how to access them:

“There were some agencies that were trying to help, but it was hard to get the information to figure out where to get that help. There weren’t a lot of bulletins put out, especially locally. I was trying to be helpful to other people in the community. But I did notice these gaps.”

  • Local organizations, VT NAD, VCIL, and the public schools were the main source of updates and links to important information. Community is critical for disaster resiliency:

“Vermont seems to be the lowest, I’m wondering if it has to do something with teamwork and community support of the Vermont community in general.” 

“The Deaf community has shared resources and information on Facebook, so we’ve supported each other with information that way. There have been interpreters interpreting updates for us. And so that’s been really helpful and kept us really aware to some extent so we can make decisions.”     

**Suggestions:  The top recommendation for disaster resiliency was better preparation, in the form of interpreters and information.

Summary compiled by:
Jennifer Byrne, Fellow 
Environmental Justice Clinic 
Vermont Law School 

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