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What Has Online Education Been Like For A Person With A Hearing Disability?

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“The first question I’m usually asked when I tell people I have hearing loss is, “Do you know sign language”? to which I respond with, “No. Oh, why?” and the proceeding list of questions are endless which makes me feel excluded. You may find that there is a sign language, but not everyone knows how to use it. More often than not, I have to lip read and that’s a quite struggle in itself.”

Deevanshi Chabbra A student of Delhi School of Social Work talks about issues related to people with a hearing Disability
Image provided by the author.

“I don’t really feel like I fit in the with the deaf community because sometimes when I speak to someone, their response is ‘You don’t sign, so you are not deaf, and you sound like a hearing person.’ I’m hard of hearing and don’t fit in with either of them. Every person has a different level of hearing loss and different communication strategies. It’s good that we have a community, but I still find myself struggling between the two and then we have the hearing world. We need to bridge the gap between hearing, hard of hearing, and the deaf community.”

The wave of the pandemic has spread all across the globe and is filling people with fear, anxiety, and higher levels of social stigma. There is a range of strategies imposed by the government to curb the spread of this virus, such as social distancing, maintaining physical distance, and enforcing a lockdown.

These steps were enforced to prevent community transmission. The pandemic has brought upon unforeseen circumstances and has disproportionately impacted persons with disability, as they are one of the most vulnerable and marginalized communities.

COVID-19 does not discriminate between people but it has impacted different segments of society contrastingly.

Persons with disabilities are facing unique challenges because of inaccessible infrastructure and negligence of the government coupled with a botched pandemic response. People with disabilities need much more support in the face of this pandemic.

Organizations and educational institutions across the nation are dynamically adapting to virtual modes of communication. This form of communication, which is supposed to be universally accessible, has become a hurdle for these affected groups, one of which is the Deaf/hard of hearing community living in India.

Most colleges have opted for conducting virtual classes as a medium of learning. For the Deaf/hard of hearing students, these changes meant that these students were often isolated from their classmates as there was no sign language interpreter made available to them. Moreover, not providing recordings of the lectures or enabling subtitles or captions throughout the video has further escalated their challenges. The absence of such amenities in an online environment with Deaf/hard of hearing students has left them in the dark about what’s being said.

Measures taken by the government to curtail the spread of the virus has amounted to direct and indirect forms of discrimination towards persons with disabilities. The government has failed to make reasonable accommodations and persons with disabilities are being routinely ignored during the COVID-19 crisis. The pandemic has acted as an acid-test which has revealed the discriminatory attitude of the state and society towards the disabled community.

Nursing students wearing protective face masks as precaution against coronavirus
AMRITSAR, INDIA – MARCH 16: Nursing students wearing protective face masks as a precaution against coronavirus, at Guru Nanak Dev hospital on March 16, 2020, in Amritsar, India. (Photo by Sameer Sehgal/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

Facial coverings are vital in the fight against this pandemic. When face masks and coverings became used widespread, a daily battle started for Deaf/hard of hearing people.

Many Deaf/hard of hearing people were vexed with the use of face masks, which obscured speech and acted as a barrier of communication for them. They had faced major obstacles in communication as they primarily rely on lip-reading, mouth movements or facial expressions to observe the tone.

The pandemic made everyday communication harder for people with hearing loss. People belonging to the Deaf/hard of hearing community are often forgotten because society has not been able to empathize with their disability. All progress made throughout decades towards equal opportunity and access to basic communication is being completely lost due to inaccessibility caused by face masks.

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that more than 5% of the world’s population has some form of hearing loss. There is an array of terminologies to describe hearing sensitivity, such as ‘Hard of Hearing’, ‘Hearing Impairment’ and ‘Deafness’. These terms have different meanings for different groups of people depending upon their level of hearing loss. ‘Hard of hearing’ is a term that refers to someone with mild-to-severe hearing loss. In these individuals, some hearing capability is still present. Whereas ‘Deafness’, on the other hand, refers to the profound loss of hearing. Deaf people have very little hearing or none at all.

There is also a difference between deaf with a small ‘d’ and Deaf with a capital ‘D’. The term ‘deaf’ refers to the audiological condition of not hearing or hearing loss. It ranges from mild to profound severity. Whereas the term ‘Deaf’ refers to a group of people who have hearing loss as well as being identified, culturally and linguistically, as deaf.

Deaf culture is mostly informed by a set of social beliefs, behaviours, traditions, history, values, as well as shared institutions in communities that are influenced by deafness, and they use sign language as a means of communication.

“When I was diagnosed with hearing loss, the doctors preferred using the term ‘hearing impairment’ which is considered to be very offensive. As I grew up, I started researching and I found it to be a negative term. ‘Hearing impaired’ and ‘Hearing disability’ – Both these terms are considered to be offensive.”

“Deaf and hard of hearing are simple, clear terms with a definition that is comprehensible to both Deaf/hard of hearing people. I like the term ‘hard of hearing’ because I want to hear as best I can although it’s harder for me. I use assistive technology and am proud of being a tool user. For many people, the words “Deaf” and “Hard of hearing” are not negative.  Instead, the term ’Hearing-impaired’ is viewed as negative. The term focuses on what people can’t do rather than on what they can.”

“Most people think that all deaf people know how to use sign language. But in reality, the majority of hard of hearing people don’t know sign language since their loss in hearing came later in life. We are excluded from the deaf community mainly because we don’t know sign language. Even some culturally Deaf persons assume that hard of hearing people should learn signing and leave the hearing culture. Even in the classroom, there are no subtitles in videos, and now with the online mode of education, we are left out from the educational learnings all together.”

A young girl looking at a phone and a textbook while studying
Representational image. Image credit: Getty Images

Connecting through virtual platforms like Zoom, Google Meet has become the new trend amid COVID-19. Everything has changed so quickly. Deaf/hard of hearing students cannot lip read a mouth covered by a mask on virtual platforms. People with hearing problems struggle to participate in a video call. People like them are being shut out and excluded which leads to isolation and loneliness.

Although many organizations have had live streams with sign language interpreters, they have failed to include captions/subtitles which makes it difficult for a person who is hard of hearing to adapt in the online learning mode. And now, with the majority of the population wearing face masks in public, one community that is facing even more challenges communicating is the Deaf/hard of hearing community.

To make sure that Deaf/hard of hearing students do not feel excluded, here are some tips to keep in mind. Firstly, make sure to turn your video camera on and try to move up to the front, so that others can see your face clearly. Secondly, ensure there is clear lighting so that it is easier to read lips. Thirdly, prepare a PPT or share a screen and transcribe it so that they can comprehend the information. And lastly, ensure that only one person is speaking at a time and to make sure that captions are available or provide a transcript before or after sharing the video on the screen.

This article is written by Deevanshi Chhabra, who is a student at the Delhi School of Social Work (DSSW). You can reach the Convenor of JAF Shameer Rishad on Twitter.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

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