For the deaf and hard of hearing, the COVID-19 pandemic has increased the stress, since it’s impossible to read lips through a cloth facemask.
Transparent plastic masks have helped: Hartford Hospital began distributing them to their patients a month ago, and Yale New Haven Hospital will begin doing so soon.
A hospital visit , however, can be truly upsetting, especially for those who have emotional or intellectual disabilities in addition to hearing loss.
A 27-year-old woman, who has both limited hearing and vision, for example, found out how hard it can be on April 2, when she was having health issues and took an Uber to Yale New Haven Hospital’s Emergency Department, according to a complaint filed by Disability Rights Connecticut.
She was offered a sign language interpreter, but the person was not at the New Haven hospital, so the woman was offered video remote interpreting equipment. “That’s an alternative to providing communication, but it tends not to be effective for a variety of reasons,” said Catherine Cushman, legal director for Disability Rights Connecticut.
In fact, the woman, who is not being named to protect her privacy, had a card with her, issued by the National Association of the Deaf, which explains the limitations, including inconsistent network connections in many hospitals. That leads to video screens freezing, Cushman said. “She has to look at this little blurry screen, with her limited vision, that keeps freezing,” she said.
The doctor who met with the woman was wearing a mask and also relied on video remote interpreting, which the complaint states was not working well and which the woman felt led to miscommunication. She was discharged with instructions to follow up with her own health caregiver.
According to the complaint, “[Disability Rights Connecticut] later contacted the patient relations officer at the [Emergency Department] to discuss the incident and received confirmation that outside sign language interpreters are not being allowed on site due to the hospital’s COVID-19 visitor restrictions.”
Middlesex and Hartford hospitals also were part of the complaint, Cushman said, though neither of the complainants at those hospitals were people with hearing disabilities.
On June 9, Deidre Gifford, acting commissioner of the state Department of Public Health, issued an order stating that people with disabilities, whether physical, mental or cognitive, may have a support person accompany them to the hospital. The order did not take effect until June 15, however.
Vincent Petrini, a Yale New Haven Hospital spokesman, said the American Sign Language interpreter on staff had retired recently and a new person was hired. He also said interpreters are scheduled when it’s known that a deaf patient is arriving and the hospital will call for one during emergency visits.
He said the COVID-19 visitor policy did not bar support people from accompanying patients with disabilities. “We have always allowed this type of visitation which we coordinate with care providers and family members. So this was not a change for us,” he said in an email.
To assist patients with hearing loss, as well as others who have difficulty communicating with someone wearing a facemask, Hartford HealthCare began giving out transparent plastic masks made by ClearMask, said Gerry Lupacchino, a senior vice president of patient experience and employee engagement.
“We came across the masks in sourcing other protective equipment, Lupaccchino said. In addition to aiding deaf people who rely on reading lips, they are used with patients who have mental health or emotional issues. “Having a person in a full mask can be very off-putting,” he said. The masks are for one-time use, according to the company’s website.
At Yale New Haven Health, the clear masks will be arriving soon. “In anticipation of the needs of our patients, families and staff who are hearing impaired, specially designed masks to aid in vital communication were ordered and are expected to arrive soon, as they have been on backorder,” Yale New Haven Hospital spokesman Mark D’Antonio said in an email.
Amy Forni, spokeswoman for Nuvance Health, whose hospitals include Norwalk and Danbury, said they too are awaiting delivery of clear masks.
Brynn Hickey, program director for the Disabilities Network of Eastern Connecticut, works as an American Sign Language interpreter at LifeBridge Community Services in Bridgeport, said she has “been called out to the hospital to go to regular appointments, and doctors’ offices in the community are getting requests for interpreters.”
But she said they are asked to get a coronavirus test on Friday and to self-quarantine for the weekend for a Monday appointment.
“That’s asking a lot of the interpreters,” she said. “It’s not like we go to one hospital and stay there all day. We go from hospital to hospital and doctor’s office all day long and we’re bouncing around.”
Shayna Siecinski of West Haven has only partial hearing on her right side, with no word recognition, so she dyes the left side of her hair purple or another bright shade. “I tell people to talk to the color so that they know what side to talk to,” she said. “Everyone seems to love it.” In fact, her husband, Matt Siecinski, “says, if I ever went without it, he’d be lost.”
Siecinski, who lost her hearing at age 7, works in her family’s business, Star Tire & Wheels, in West Haven and Hartford, and said the COVID-19 pandemic “is the worst that my disability has ever affected me. Difficult is putting it lightly.”
Her service dog, Lileu, a Mudi mix, lets people know they need to clearly communicate with her, as does the sign at her desk, which lets people know she’s hearing impaired and may have to ask people to repeat themselves “multiple times.”
“Please bear with me during this crazy time” says the sign. Siecinski relies on reading lips and hearing through her left ear and doesn’t know how to sign.
“Trying to hear people these days is nearly impossible,” Siecinski said. “It’s definitely created a lot of stress. Just trying to get through the day is taking twice as much energy as on a normal day.”
She also posts a lot about hearing loss on social media; it’s important to her to raise awareness. “If you’re not able to advocate for yourself, it makes the day twice as hard,” she said. “It can be hard and even embarrassing to put everything out there.”
The pandemic has created an increased need for information, and public officials have been holding daily briefings for months. But they haven’t always been accessible to the hard of hearing, even when there has been a sign language interpreter present.
Four deaf New York state residents and Disability Rights New York filed a federal lawsuit against Gov. Andrew Cuomo because, they said, his televised briefings did not include a picture-in-picture interpreter. The sign language versions were available on Cuomo’s website and the briefings were closed captioned, but the plaintiffs said they had no internet access and did not understand English well enough to read the captions.
The suit was settled, and Cuomo, like Gov. Ned Lamont, has an in-frame signer on his broadcasts now.
Luisa Gasco-Soboleski, president of the Connecticut Association of the Deaf, said there were no interpreters at Lamont’s press events at the beginning of the pandemic.
“Some deaf people can’t read well, so when it’s captioning they have no information, nothing, zero,” she said. “And that’s why we request American Sign Language interpreters always during these meetings.” She called the in-frame captioning “a huge improvement and that was what we needed to see. … We notice the tone of voice by the facial expression.”
Gasco-Soboleski said the best sign language interpreters are certified deaf interpreters, who pick up signs from a hearing interpreter in the audience. “They’re much more expressive. There’s a lot more language there … They can say the emotion a little bit better. … It’s just the way they express it.”
New Haven Mayor Justin Elicker also has an interpreter present at his briefings, which are held on the Zoom video platform. Michelle Duprey, city director of disability services, said signed interpreting has been standard for planned events, such as the State of the City address, but that daily briefings were not always scheduled.
“It was the best option for the city and our deaf community to have the mayor’s comments available at the time they’re made,” she said. The interpreter occupies one of the Zoom frames.
When Elicker is speaking live, however, it is trickier, because the interpreter stands to the side and TV cameras don’t always use the best angle. “It doesn’t go perfectly [but] we really make an effort,” Duprey said.
One person who doesn’t have a signing interpreter, however, is President Donald Trump. “You don’t see any interpreters for any of the president’s speeches,” Gasco-Soboleski said. “Deaf people want to know what’s going on.”