As we approach three months of lockdown, one of the main emotions millions of us are feeling is loneliness. As a result of our combined efforts to stay safe and prevent the coronavirus spread, our usual ways of seeing family, friends or just familiar faces have been put on pause.
This has only been heightened in recent months and, for people who are profoundly Deaf, the social isolation and loneliness that has started to become the ‘new norm’ for some can, unfortunately, feel even more challenging to overcome at times.
Why might Deaf people feel more isolated during the pandemic?
Human interaction makes life more comfortable and enjoyable for us all, and the current lockdown restrictions which limit how we can interact with friends and family can put anyone in the position of isolation.
As a Deaf person, when your ability to hear and freely express your thoughts to the rest of the world is not consistently possible, this feeling of loneliness can become even more profound. In fact, nearly two out of three Britons with hearing loss feel socially isolated because of their Deafness.
If communicating clearly feels challenging or impossible in the current circumstances, Deaf people may avoid social, business or transactional situations where interaction is key, instead choosing to withdraw and isolate themselves even further. This can have a significant impact on their mental health.
Isolation and mental health
The negative effects of the coronavirus pandemic on mental health have been widely reported, and Deaf people are twice as likely to have mental health issues compared with hearing people, as communication barriers can exacerbate symptoms like depression and anxiety.
Added to this, mental health services can be difficult for Deaf people to access – one small study involving 54 people found that more than half had not been able to find mental health services that they, as Deaf people, could use.
That said, the Deaf community is empowered and can navigate the challenges posed by Covid-19 just as well as anyone with the right tools and information, and a bit of understanding.
What can we do to support the Deaf community?
Deafness is the third most prevalent disability on the planet. However, due to its ‘invisible’ appearance, the needs of people who are Deaf are often misunderstood in day to day life.
If you are a family member, employer, teacher, medical professional or in fact anyone communicating with a Deaf person, you must be aware of the steps to take to ensure you can interact with them in a reliable way throughout lockdown and help them feel less isolated.
Understand not all Deaf people are the same
When it comes to communicating with a Deaf person, it’s crucial to never make assumptions and to understand that, like anyone, each person is different with their own individual needs and preferences.
Not all Deaf people want to communicate in the same way. Some will prefer to use British Sign Language [BSL] and some will want to lip read or write. Statistically, people who lip read only understand about 30 per cent of what is being said, and a lot of meaning is gathered purely from context, so you should never assume that a Deaf person can read your lips. Instead, ask them how they want to proceed.
Wear accessible face masks
Many of us have begun wearing surgical face masks in public to help limit the coronavirus spread, however these can make it very difficult for Deaf people who may rely on lip-reading, facial expressions and other visual cues to communicate. If you know you are going to come into regular contact with a Deaf person and need to wear a face mask, masks with a transparent window where the mouth is visible are now available and can make a world of difference for some Deaf people.
Use suitable technology to communicate
When using technology to interact with a Deaf person from a distance throughout lockdown, you need to ensure the online communication platform you are using enables user-friendliness for them, as the accessibility, security and quality features of each platform varies widely.
There are a range of providers. The InterpretersLive! service, powered by Starleaf, delivers real-time access to qualified and registered BSL interpreters using a secure encrypted and ISO27001 accredited, HD quality video platform. The Starleaf platform has millions of users worldwide and is already familiar to the Deaf community in the UK, who use it to contact a range of organisations free of charge in their first or preferred language of BSL.
Starleaf’s interoperability with other secure video platforms ensures that BSL interpreters can be brought into Teams, Skype for business and many other secure video platforms.
Help them access mental health support
It’s important to regularly check in with your Deaf friend, colleague or loved-one throughout lockdown and to know how to spot the signs that may suggest they are struggling with their mental health.
If you are concerned, particularly as mental health appointments using in-person interpreters aren’t currently possible with social distancing, they can still use video interpreters to get the counselling or treatment they need without delay. Some people may even prefer this method, as it allows them to join the session from the comfort of their home in more familiar and relaxing surroundings.
Everyone can feel isolated at some point in their lives, even more so given the extreme and unusual circumstances we currently find ourselves in, and Deaf people are no different. By showing compassion, regularly checking in and taking the time to understand the best ways to communicate, we can navigate these times together for a less lonely life in lockdown.
Clare Vale is managing director of Sign Solutions