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WARNING: Deaf And Hard Of Hearing Discriminated Against In Latest Pandemic Rules

The hundreds of thousands of people with hearing loss are being discriminated and their needs overlooked in the latest government guidelines to fight the Covid-19 pandemic.

The National Foundation for Deaf and Hard of Hearing has teamed up with Deaf Aotearoa to urgently lobby government, ministers and the Ministry of Health to ensure inclusion of the Deaf and hard of hearing communities in its approach to combat Covid-19 community transmission. The government has recommended New Zealanders wear masks or cover their faces when out in public.

As a result, the two advocacy groups have sent an open letter to Prime Minister Rt Hon Jacinda Ardern, Minister for Disability Issues, Hon Carmel Sepuloni, Minister for Broadcasting, Hon Kris Faafoi and Director-General of Health, Dr Ashley Bloomfield calling for greater inclusion for those who are Deaf or hard of hearing.

While the two organisations acknowledge the government’s recommended use of face masks is imperative to help combat the spread of the virus, they believe it presents a major communication barrier for the 880,000 people who are Deaf or hard of hearing – many of whom rely on lip reading to assist them to fully understand conversations. Added to this, news bulletins outside primetime news programmes are not required to have closed captions, so they fail to meet the needs of all New Zealanders.

NFDHH and Deaf Aotearoa warn the repercussions can include:

  • A reluctance for those who are Deaf or hard of hearing to get tested, as they may not understand conversations or instructions
  • The potential for this audience to miss important information in news conferences
  • A feeling of isolation and marginalising that can impact on their mental health.

NFDHH and Deaf Aotearoa are calling for closed captions for all Covid-19 briefing sessions on media-run platforms, New Zealand Sign Language (NZSL) interpreters at testing stations, and captions in places where public service announcements are played over speakers, such as at airports and train stations.

“Social distancing makes hearing harder, even without wearing masks,” Natasha Gallardo, Chief Executive of the National Foundation for Deaf and Hard of Hearing, says.

“Many of the hard of hearing community are becoming more anxious when confronted by someone wearing a mask, or watching news reports and not knowing what is happening. More needs to be done to include them in mainstream communications and services during this pandemic.”

These concerns were echoed by Deaf Aotearoa Chief Executive Lachlan Keating: “We have had contact with a number of Deaf people who have expressed concerns about communication barriers when essential workers wear masks and refuse to remove them or to communicate in other ways. This has occurred for Deaf people attending hospital appointments and Covid-19 testing stations.

“There is a lack of provision of interpreters for Deaf people engaging in the health system and that prevents a huge barrier to communication and can lead to increased anxiety and misunderstanding.”

Deaf Aotearoa has established a Covid-19 Hotline for Deaf people who use NZSL to ensure queries can be answered in NZSL, and it is working closely with government agencies to ensure essential information is translated into NZSL and accessible for the Deaf community.

The government is staging regular health updates, and while this includes NZSL interpreters, it does not provide suitable support for the thousands of others who do not use sign language, such as closed captions.

NFDHH and Deaf Aotearoa strongly believe it is imperative that captions are provided at all national media briefings, including those broadcast as “live” on media websites and other digital channels. They also want the government to ensure news outlets are able to provide closed captions on their Covid-19 broadcasts – irrespective of whether it is a scheduled bulletin or broadcast “OnDemand” or delayed an hour to “+1” channels.

NFDHH conducted a survey in 2018 that revealed that 68.3 per cent of people with hearing loss relied on closed captions when watching television or streaming services.

Gallardo, who wears hearing aids and relies on being able to lip read, says she and others with hearing loss already feel isolated and left out: “Any steps to ensure a more inclusive nation must be taken. We respect media need to be kept safe and must wear masks during interviews and on-screen reporting, however those with hearing loss may not be able to hear what they are saying, and could feel even more anxious as a result.”

She says New Zealand proudly leads the charge in terms of the pro-active way the Government and ministry have front-footed the pandemic, and now there is also an opportunity to be a world leader is how we address Covid-19 for those who are hard of hearing – by providing mechanisms to communicate their needs when interacting with people wearing masks.

NFDHH has a “buddy card” that alerts people to the person’s hearing loss, and can provide the file to be printed and made available at places where the public will be – such as on public transport, airports, Covid-19 testing stations and supermarkets, to assist with essential workers understanding the needs of those with hearing loss, and assist them to seek support in a simple yet effective way.

Keating added: “Our staff are working hard with their local communities as well as at a national level to ensure Deaf people can access information in NZSL so they can be fully informed of the rapidly-evolving Covid-19 situation.

“We thank the government for their willingness to work closely with us over the past six months, however we need to be mindful that there is still much work to be done to ensure the Deaf community can stay abreast of the situation and play their part in the team of five million”.

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