The global deaf and hard of hearing community has turned to Gallaudet University as their source of bilingual information during the coronavirus pandemic.
“Our commitment to visual and signed language, and to English readily translates to our larger mission to serve deaf, hard of hearing and deaf-blind people in the U.S. and the world, who often have less access to full and accurate information, because Gallaudet has made this information widely accessible to everyone — protecting the collective safety and well-being of our community here and globally,” said Gallaudet University President Roberta Cordano.
Like other colleges across the country, Gallaudet has sent its students home to participate in remote learning via video conferencing.
However, Gallaudet personnel set up virtual town hall meetings with university officials and experts who use American Sign Language (ASL), citing an urgent need to inform staff and students of the rapidly evolving public health emergency.
Every Wednesday, from noon to 1 p.m., Gallaudet will host a Facebook Live town hall with public health and economy experts to communicate in ASL and English about the impact the pandemic is having on the world and the university.
Gallaudet already has hosted seven virtual town halls for the deaf community ranging in 10,000 to 106,000 total views per video with people from the United States and around the world watching.
According to the World Health Organization, more than 5% of the world’s population is deaf or hard of hearing.
“Deaf people, just like everybody else, need information,” said Brandi Rarus, executive director of communications at Gallaudet University.
Ms. Rarus said that deaf and hard-of-hearing people have to come up with their own ways to disseminate information.
“We are no different in the sense that this is a crisis and there’s a need for immediate information,” she said.
Information in ASL is not as readily available as she would like, but progress has been made, Ms. Rarus said. She noted that, press briefings in some states routinely have sign-language interpreters, but five years ago, that wasn’t happening at all.
“The reason why I continue to say deaf people are resilient is because, think about it, Gallaudet was founded in 1864 and we have a very strong history of deaf people being innovative in their lives to be able to meet some of the challenges and remove some of the barriers applied by hearing society,” said Laurene Simms, Gallaudet’s chief bilingual officer.
Ms. Simms noted that the country and the world have struggled through previous emergencies when technology wasn’t available and the deaf community adapted.
Amid social distancing protocols, people who are deaf and hard of hearing find going to the hospital a challenge because they aren’t allowed to bring interpreters with them and face masks make it difficult to read lips. For those reasons, the National Association for the Deaf has compiled a list of recommended speech-to-text phone applications and emergency items to bring to the hospital.
University officials said no Gallaudet students have tested positive for the coronavirus and just over 60 students are still on campus, some of whom could not return home due to travel restrictions.
Students who did travel home are being refunded for room and board. Those with on-campus jobs who can no longer work or have reduced hours are being paid an average of what they made before the pandemic.
Ms. Rarus said Gallaudet’s transition to online classes was easy because the university uses that technology all the time, but the vibrancy of ASL communication on campus is missing.
Located in Northeast Washington, the federally chartered Gallaudet was the world’s first higher education institution for the deaf and hard of hearing. It began as an elementary school for deaf and blind children.