7 Ways Deaf and Hard of Hearing Services Have Pivoted During the Pandemic

For people who are deaf and hard of hearing, the pandemic has created an additional layer of challenges. Many had more difficulty accessing health information.

Deaf, deafblind and hard of hearing community members have many different levels of understanding, communication and accessibility that need to be accommodated, says Deb Atwood, executive director of Deaf and Hard of Hearing Services (D&HHS) at Great Rapids.

“Many of us hearing people struggle to understand something like COVID-19. Now take the flood of information that comes to us as a city, region, country and world. Take that flood of information and imagine your first language is ASL (American Sign Language). Much of the information is not available to you. The people we serve have been marginalized and are vulnerable. They become even more so during something like this pandemic,” says Atwood.

Take action

Fortunately, the organization is able to pivot to address these issues, demonstrating agency nimbleness and nimbleness. As they worked with more and more clients who were frustrated with how they were missing out on critical COVID information, Atwood and his team sprang into action:

  • They worked to help people understand that Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s first executive order allowed an exception for the deaf, deafblind and hard of hearing, saying, “The requirement to wear a face covering does not apply people who… communicate with someone who is deaf, deafblind or hard of hearing and where the ability to see the mouth is essential for communication.
  • They also began sourcing and distributing communication masks, transparent masks that allow people who are deaf, deafblind, and hard of hearing to see the speaker’s mouth and lip-reading.
  • They partnered with WKTV in Grand Rapids and launched a new program for the radio station and YouTube called “hands on healthco-hosted by a deaf employee and a deaf board member and presented in ASL and spoken English so all audiences can access important health information, including COVID.
  • They moved their successful ASL classes from an in-person experience to an online experience, quickly pivoting and delivering an online ASL experience that students loved, and also moved their annual Kids Kamp from an in person to an online and video format which also received rave reviews. from children and their parents.
  • They have partnered with the Kent County Health Department on an immunization clinic for those they serve, including requesting and receiving a micro-grant of the COVID-19 Resilience Fund of the CSD Units Community Foundationan Austin, Texas-based organization that works on behalf of the deaf and hard of hearing, one of six organizations across the country to win a grant.
  • They worked with local, state and national officials to ensure press conferences, government briefings and the like had an ASL interpreter present.
  • And they’ve done many media interviews about the issues facing deaf, deafblind, and hard of hearing people during the pandemic, as well as many stories on their website.

Founded in 1995

Being responsive is fairly typical for the organization, which was founded in 1995 after a deaf community leader nearly died after a series of communication problems following a heart attack.

“The circumstances that Marty Jansen and his wife, Dianne, had to endure were the last straw for many in the West Michigan deaf community,” Atwood recalled. “People got together and said enough was enough. We need a comprehensive, full-service agency serving the needs of our Deaf and Hard of Hearing communities. »

It has grown into a comprehensive, full-service agency serving the needs of the Deaf, DeafBlind, and Hard of Hearing communities, the only agency in West Michigan that does what it does.

A big move

Now, with the pandemic becoming rampant, Atwood and his team are ready for another — literal — big move.

In mid-June, they will move to the Special Olympics of Michigan Unified Sports and Inclusion Center, joining a host of other nonprofits under one roof to better serve their customers.

To prepare for the move, D&HHS launched its first-ever major fundraising campaign earlier this year. “Expanding Equal Access: A New Home for Deaf and Hard of Hearing Services” is a $266,000 fundraising campaign that will allow D&HHS to be part of the large nonprofit center being developed at the ‘former South Christian High School on SW 68th Street in Grand Rapids, just west of a major bus route on South Division Avenue.

‘It’s going to be awesome’

D&HHS will join Special Olympics of Michigan, Autism Support of Kent County, Brody’s Be Café, Disability Advocates of Kent County, Down Syndrome Association of West Michigan, Far Out Volleyball Club, Mental Health Foundation of West Michigan/be nice, MOKA and Thresholds in this new space.

“Deaf & Hard of Hearing Services is our go-to partner for all issues related to hearing loss. We are delighted to have them as our new neighbour,” says David Bulkowski, Managing Director of DAKC.

D&HHS Board Chairman Rowan O’Dougherty said the organization is eager to join the provider hub.

“Deaf people need our agency, and Deaf people need a community. That’s why I’m so excited about moving here. We currently have such limited space, but when we move here, those limitations will disappear. We can bring our community together to socialize, play sports and have coffee at the cafe. Our deaf seniors could make it a weekly activity. It’s going to be awesome,” O’Dougherty says.

The organization plans to move into the new space in June and hold an open house and groundbreaking ceremony on August 18.

All are welcome, just as all have been welcome since the organization’s launch in 1995, says Atwood.

“It’s in our mission statement. Our mission is to provide equal access to communication, education and advocacy for deaf, deafblind and hard of hearing people in pursuit of all of life’s opportunities. This has been the case for 27 years and will be the case for many years to come.

This article is part of a year-long series exploring the growing disability community in Western Michigan. The series is made possible through a partnership with the West Michigan Centers for Independent Living organizations.

Michael A. May