"President Trump Delivers Remarks During a Coronavirus Update Briefing" (Creative Commons)

The White House did not provide ASL interpreters at coronavirus updates like this one from March until Oct. 1 when U.S. District Judge James Boasberg ordered the White House to provide interpretation in sign language for all future COVID-19 briefings. Access for Deaf people in America has been limited throughout history and has only worsened in the current pandemic. ("President Trump Delivers Remarks During a Coronavirus Update Briefing" by The White House is marked with CC PDM 1.0.)

The University of Oregon has made many changes in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, but the Deaf community has added challenges to adjusting to a new normal. 

Professor Chad Catron, who started his second year working as an American Sign Language teacher at UO this fall, is profoundly Deaf— he can’t hear anything. Catron has new struggles — both teaching and living — as a Deaf person in a hearing world during COVID-19. 

“The best way to learn ASL is in the classroom,” Catron said. “It’s easier for me to teach, and it’s easier for the students to learn and receive the signs.”

Mackenzie Brown, a junior and second-year ASL student, has noticed challenges trying to learn sign language at a distance. 

“ASL is a visual language, and it’s harder to learn in the sense that you’re not exposed to an ASL environment,” Brown said. “Through Zoom, you don’t get to see full body language and expressions that play a big part in communicating with ASL.”

Learning ASL is simpler in person, but Catron said communicating within the Deaf community is simpler in person, too. As sign language is expressed visually, it is harder for the Deaf to communicate and socialize at distance. 

“The Deaf community tends to be small, and everybody comes together,” Catron said. “Now with COVID, we can’t. It’s hard for the Deaf community to stay close together and interact with social distancing because of how we communicate.” 

Some of the ways that society has adjusted to COVID-19, such as talking over the phone rather than meeting in person, have different repercussions on the Deaf community. 

Michelle Villa, president of the UO ASL club, has concerns for this group while dealing with COVID-19. 

“We have to talk about the masks,” Villa said. “That’s just crazy. Even the plastic ones fog up.” 

While wearing face masks is a necessity during the COVID-19 pandemic, reading lips is often necessary for Deaf people, and as Catron said, there still isn’t a great solution to navigate these circumstances. 

While Catron doesn’t like to rely on lip reading for most of his communication, opaque face masks have added another obstacle for basic communication. 

“I wear a mask myself, but if I see a person that’s talking to me, I’m not sure,” Catron said. “Their lips are not shown because of their masks. I can’t tell if their lips are moving, so I’m not sure if they’re trying to talk to me. I tend to mind my own business and limit my interactions with other people.” 

Additionally, the Deaf community is shortchanged in widespread communication. As of Oct. 1, U.S. District Judge James Boasberg ordered the White House to provide interpretation in sign language for COVID-19 briefings. This step towards inclusivity is important, but Catron wishes the hearing community would include more interpreters for all emergency news and breaking news. 

Villa highlighted the recent presidential debate as an example. There were no interpreters.

“You think about the hearing people, and how this has been so hard,” Villa said. “COVID, the fires, everything. Going through that with a lack of resources, translations, interpreters... I can’t even begin to believe how hard that is for the Deaf community. Any disabled or differently-abled community, but specifically the Deaf community.” 

Catron, Brown and Villa all agree that awareness and acknowledgment towards the Deaf community are important for moving forward to a more inclusive future. The UO ASL club is welcoming to any student who wants to learn more about sign language or being an ally with the Deaf community. 

“COVID-19 has hit the globe, and we’re just all trying our best to work together until COVID-19 is over,” Catron said. “They have the see-thru masks; they show your lips. You can wear those. Sometimes they don’t help, but what is most important is more understanding and awareness.”