Communicating in a COVID world: the challenge for the Deaf and hard of hearing

24 Feb 2022

By Eric Leslie Martin

Geoffrey Scott is an accomplished artist (with a Fine Arts Degree) and decorated international athlete, winning numerous awards for Australia in the pool. Photo: Eric Martin.

Imagine trying to navigate the world of COVID directives and health mandates without being able to hear what anyone is saying or struggling with the vocabulary to make clear sense of the scientists’ findings or the politicians’ statements.

Imagine not being able to communicate with people at the shops to find out why there are gaping holes in the aisles where the products that you need should be.

This is the situation in which many people from the local deaf community find themselves as COVID-19 begins to make its presence known in WA and reflects the experience of Deaf people across Australia over the last two years.

The Record caught up with Emmanuel Centre employee and volunteer of over 30 years, Geoffrey Scott, to find out how COVID-19 has been affecting daily life for members of the Deaf Community here in the Archdiocese of Perth.

Geoff says that COVID has stopped him from doing many of his normal activities, such as swimming, playing water polo or going to parties, he has found it isolating and has kept away from friends and family during the pandemic.

“Yet just like everyone else, the community has been meeting up online, in the virtual space, chatting on Facebook and Messenger, which is still the best way to catch up at this time,” Geoff said.

“I have been lucky to be in contact with friends who have kept me updated, also, working here at The Emmanuel Centre means that Joe (the coordinator) has been helping to keep me up to date with the changes to what I need to have for work.

“For example, the team at work have helped me access my COVID Vaccine Certificate through MyGov, which would have been very difficult for me to find by myself. My other main source of information has been the newspaper.”

As well as teaching an art class, Geoff manages the Emmanuel Centre’s recycling program and prepares and delivers hundreds of newspapers for recycling each month, as well as bottles and cans, and enjoys being able to catch up on all the headlines while he is sorting.

“The government has been very good in making sure that we are able to understand about the virus, I think we are able to understand about it better here in WA than over in the eastern states,” he said.

Geoff currently works and volunteers at The Emmanuel Centre, a small agency working with the Deaf as well as running an activities group for people with an intellectual disability. As well as running the art class, Geoff oversees the Centre’s recycling program. Photo: Eric Martin.

“One thing that surprised me though was seeing the shortages in the shops – I went to buy cat food and the shelves were empty. I had to watch the news, with captions on, to find out about the trains and trucks that had been stopped from coming across from the Eastern States due to the floods.”

“My experience is that hearing people tend to ignore deaf people when they are out and about. People are too busy to stop and try to talk anymore, there is less and less time to talk with someone who is serving you at the shops and that has become even more normal now with everyone in masks.”

However, one positive that has emerged from the crisis is the overwhelming popularity of AUSLAN interpreter Fiona Perry and fellow interpreters who have been working with the Government at each of his press conferences, and according to Geoff, this has had a profound impact, not just on his and others’ ability to follow the news on TV, but also by encouraging widespread awareness of deafness and a focus on communication among hearing people.

“The interpreter has been really helpful in understanding what has been happening on the news and deaf people see it as a big positive for them, she has encouraged lots of people to become more interested in AUSLAN,” he said.

“Her work has really helped to put deaf and hearing people on a level playing field, this kind of equality is great to see. Sometimes I can still miss what she has signed, and sometimes they use different signs for words than the ones that I know, but overall, it has really helped me to follow the news.”