I wanted to start this article with a broken conversation — a conversation drummed up by the closed captioning on a TV program or Zoom.
Now, I don’t mean the subtitles for whatever Netflix show you’re binging on. Professional writers handle those. I’m talking about those terrible, automatically generated, and often comically inaccurate ones. You see them on TVs at bars and airports and at home. At the bottom of the screen, the classic black bar with white text scrolls too fast to read. Large chunks of dialogue — entire sentences at a time — are missing. The text’s frequent spelling and grammatical errors would leave any first-grade teacher unimpressed.
For folks who are not Hard of Hearing, missing out on fictional storylines is frustrating. But for the Deaf community, it’s more serious than that. What happens when Deaf people need access to critical information?
When COVID-19 hit North America in March 2020, “normal” life drastically changed. People lost jobs and started to work from home, while schools across Canada retreated to online learning.
Governments gave daily updates ranging from positive case numbers and outbreaks to safety protocols and vaccine development. All of this information had to be relayed to the public quickly.
Suddenly, if an interpreter wasn’t available during a newscast or presser, the Deaf community would have to rely on substandard captions or spend time trying to find this information elsewhere.
When the pandemic first chased learning online, schools from elementary to post-secondary used software like Zoom, WebEx, and Microsoft Teams to host online classes. Forgetting to take oneself off of mute and wearing pyjamas in class became the norm. These captions and text transcriptions suddenly became more prominent, acting as a bridge between an instructor’s content and a community hampered with accessibility issues.
Katarina Ziervogel, a 24-year-old media production student who was born Deaf, doesn’t bother with the closed captioning. Instead, she uses American Sign Language (ASL) interpreters, only relying on the text transcription on days where she is unable to attend class. While transcriptions tend to work better for her than auto-generated captions, she says it has its drawbacks too.
These text transcriptions usually contain errors, and sometimes just one missing word or phrase can cause problems for students who are trying to study complicated topics.
Often, schools like The University of Winnipeg hire people to fix the transcriptions, but it’s laborious and time-consuming. Even when interpreters are present, there’s an inherent delay during the instructor’s process of saying something and the interpreter Signing it — a delay that causes issues during class discussions or when a student needs to ask a question.
Ziervogel points out how people in the Deaf community are more susceptible to “Zoom fatigue,” which describes the tiredness that stems from how we process information over a video call.
“Being able to multi-task around the house while listening to the lectures is a luxury that many Deaf and Hard of Hearing students can’t afford,” says Ziervogel, adding that keeping her concentration on the ASL interpreter continuously for a three-hour lecture is strenuous.
According to an article by the BBC, video calls require more focus than a face-to-face chat, and our brains have to work harder to process non-verbal cues like facial expressions and body language. Zoom fatigue is much more prominent for Deaf people who depend entirely on these cues.
Ziervogel says within a few weeks of online learning, she found herself having to take breaks from staring at the computer screen.
This issue is compounded by poor online learning accessibility issues, which were especially noticeable at the onset of the pandemic. For example, when Zoom was first widely used at the beginning of the pandemic in North America, it didn’t allow users to pin more than one person on their screen. This meant Deaf students could only pin their teacher or the interpreter — not both at the same time. Zoom has since adjusted to allow users to pin multiple people simultaneously, but Microsoft Teams has a similar problem. When an instructor shares their screen with a student, which is now one of the more common ways to teach, the interpreter’s video square on the screen becomes much smaller, making it challenging to process the ASL.
A lot of these programs are also sound-based — the person speaking is usually automatically spotlighted on screen. This causes malfunctions at the best of times; often, the software spotlights the wrong individual while the person talking remains on-screen. A Deaf student or an interpreter using ASL won’t appear on-screen properly.
Of course, video conferencing isn’t just the new normal for education. COVID-19 has sent jobs, conferences, events, media interviews, and just about anything else you can think of into the virtual world. These software and technical issues aren’t contained only to Deaf students but extend to the entire Deaf community.
A Winnipeg news outlet interviewed Rick Zimmer, the coordinator of Red River College’s ASL & Deaf Studies program and a Deaf man himself, near the onset of the pandemic using Microsoft Teams to discuss how COVID-19 has affected the education system.
The interpreter who accepted the assignment was adamant their face would not appear on the screen during the newscast. Instead, Zimmer would appear on the screen and the interpreter’s voice would be heard. Zimmer says this is a standard policy.
“Some people might think interpreters are there to help guide us through our daily lives. The interpreter is not there to help me at all; they are just there to offer access and communication,” says Zimmer.
“When someone is asking me something, I am sharing my answers and my opinions.”
Zimmer says his face should be on the screen when he’s being interviewed. He is the interviewee, and says by neglecting to show him, the waters are muddied, and the audience might assume the thoughts being shared belong to the interpreter and not to the Deaf person.
“When the interpreter is being put in front of the camera, it’s like the interpreter is the one being interviewed,” says Zimmer.
When he watched the interview on the news later that night, he was furious to see the interpreter on the screen — he was nowhere in sight. The news outlet told him that because Microsoft Teams is voice-activated, it took the footage of the interpreter and not of him.
In general, Zimmer says the Canadian government is a bit behind on having interpreting services widely and readily accessible. Zimmer says “it kind of depends on the day” on whether interpretation will be available.
“There’s still lots of work to be done,” says Zimmer.
The evening news rarely has an interpreter, leaving the Deaf community to depend on captioning or other means to get access. Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau has an interpreter for his COVID-19 update pressers, but when the camera leaves him and moves to someone else, the interpretation usually ends. Massive chunks of the press conference are missing.
Evan Husack, a Deaf student at Red River College, says he would like all three levels of government — municipal, provincial, and federal — to provide better access to information for the Deaf community.
“Hearing people can live their lives without encountering those barriers that we face on a regular basis,” says Husack.
“It’s coming to a point in time where we feel like enough is enough. We need specific access to information as quickly as hearing people have access to it.”
Husack discusses a quote from M.J. Bienvenu, a professor at Gallaudet University, a private institution in Washington, D.C. and the only university in the world for the Deaf community:
“Deaf people in the Deaf community, they are born warriors. That is something that they have to do for their entire lives is fight for basic rights.”
Husack says this “warrior mentality” is a characteristic of many Deaf people who often have to lobby governments for better access to information.
“It’s a continuous struggle and a battle for us as Deaf people in terms of getting basic access to information, which is a human right.”
Imagine you’re in a life-and-death scenario: your car hits a patch of ice and begins sliding to the edge of a bridge. There’s a home invader in your kitchen while you’re locked silently in the closet in your room. Your best friend is experiencing an allergic reaction and needs an ambulance, pronto. What would you do? Your instinct might be to call 911. With the widespread use of cellphones, it’s arguably easier to contact emergency services today than at any other point in history. But what do you do if you’re Deaf? Sign language can’t be communicated over the phone, not at least without video or some kind of visual aid.
Husack says he uses an app called Canada VRS, which connects Deaf, Hard of Hearing, or speech-impaired Canadians to a Sign language interpreter who can provide real-time interpretation for telephone calls. When using the app, calling 911 quickly transfers the user to the VRS system. Texting 911 is becoming increasingly prevalent, but it still isn’t available everywhere, and emergency services say it doesn’t usually provide them with enough details quickly enough. This app’s existence is vital — without it, many people would be left without a lifeline in a situation where their life is on the line.
“People without that app, unfortunately, what they have to do is ask one of their friends that’s nearby or somebody else that’s nearby if it’s an emergency situation to make a call for them, which is not ideal,” says Husack.
“It’s another frustrating thing that we have to deal with.”
The Canadian Association for the Deaf (CAD) estimates there are approximately 357,000 Deaf Canadians and around 3.21 million Hard of Hearing Canadians but admits the number may not be accurate.
Part of the issue when trying to work out these numbers is the changing terminology.
The World Health Organization (WHO) says around 466 million people globally have “disabling hearing loss,” which the WHO defines as hearing loss greater than 40 decibels (dB) in the better hearing ear for adults and greater than 30 dB for children. The WHO does not have a specific number for the Deaf community.
Some people are born profoundly deaf, whereas others develop deafness or hearing loss later in life.
Jenna-Lee Irwin falls into the latter category after a bout with bacterial meningitis, an infection that attacks the brain and spinal cord, left her profoundly deaf at seven months old.
You may have noticed I put “deaf” without a capital D in that last sentence but capitalized it in other parts of this story. No, that isn’t a typo. “Deaf” and “deaf” are two different things. The CAD says “deaf” is a “medical or audiological term referring to those people who have little or no functional hearing.”
“Deaf,” with a capital D, they say, is a sociological term that refers to people who are medically deaf or hard of hearing who “identify with and participate in the culture, society, and language of Deaf people, which is based on Sign language.”
“Deaf” is a community, “deaf” is a medical term. Irwin is medically deaf, but she identifies with the Deaf community.
Sign language, which the CAD calls the official language of the Deaf community, is not well-known. According to Start ASL, a website offering ASL courses, tutors, and resources, ASL is the natural language of about 500,000 Deaf people in the United States and Canada.
Irwin says communication became very frustrating when the pandemic first hit. Masks eliminated her ability to read lips — a necessity when running errands.. While shopping at stores, she wasn’t able to use a pen and paper to write out what she wanted to buy, nor would cashiers or store employees allow her to get physically close enough for her to type it up on her phone and show them. In one instance, she was unable to communicate with a cashier at a store and had to leave without her intended purchases. Masks, while a safety measure, further drive a wedge between Deaf and hearing people.
“It makes me feel even more left out,” says Irwin.
“These are some small things that people don’t realize. We are also struggling with the isolation and now facing these communications barriers,” she says.
One possible solution to overcoming this mask barrier is the emergence of transparent masks, which offer protection from the virus without obstructing the view of the face. The usefulness of these masks stretches way past helping the Deaf community with accessibility issues. The Department of Theatre and Film at The University of Winnipeg, for example, has also requested the use of these masks, as a lot of their curriculum and work is based around facial expressions.
But a clear mask is far from the ideal solution. Some users say the masks have a tendency to fog up when being worn, and they aren’t as easy to come by as the standard cloth or N95 respirator masks. The ones you do find aren’t the most affordable things in the world. The first option that appears when searching for clear masks on amazon.ca is a two-pack for $22 — reviews are lukewarm at best, and you can’t buy them in bulk like you can with other types of disposal masks. Big-box retailers like Walmart appear only to sell transparent masks on their website, whereas you can go and buy other masks in-store easily.
Transparent masks are a step in the right direction but just don’t appear to be a formidable enough solution to a communication issue that has existed for almost a year.
To say COVID-19 has been rough would probably put you in the running for the “Understatement of the Millennium” award, and it has caused further barriers for the Deaf community — but there have been some silver linings.
“It’s a little bit ironic when you think about this pandemic — it’s interesting how it positively affected the Deaf community,” says Zimmer.
“I know we are talking about the pandemic that’s taken lives, causing a lot of illnesses, but because of the pandemic, people are realizing that we (the Deaf community) have gone without access for so many years. Before COVID-19, we weren’t seen. Nobody realized where we were at.”
This pandemic has brought to light issues the Deaf community faces. We are now at a time where relaying information to people is more critical than at any other time in recent history. Folks have to stay in the loop with COVID-19, which includes keeping the Deaf community up to date, too — barriers or not.
“Our communities are very separate between the Deaf and non-Deaf communities, and now we have come together. COVID-19 has caused a lot of things to speed up faster than they ever have before, and I hope that continues on.”
Ziervogel, meanwhile, highlights some of the positives of her school program being moved online, including saving time and money on the commute.
“(Online learning) could’ve been a little better but having accessibility isn’t always 100 per cent perfect,” she says.
“Hopefully, someday it will be, though.”
Zimmer says while the pandemic has brought awareness to the Deaf community, there is still a lot of work to be done.
“I was looking today on the news, and again there is no captioning. No interpreter,” says Zimmer.
“We are in the year 2021. We have the technology to offer all of these things. The technology is there, and it’s been waiting to be used since the ‘70s, and here we are, still, 50 years later, waiting for access.”
Zimmer says he would like mandatory access to information for the Deaf community to become a law in Canada, which would allow the community to push for legal ramifications in situations where that access to basic information is not available.
“Offer us the access we deserve. Offer us equal access for Deaf and hearing individuals alike.”