COVID-19 pandemic presented unique and difficult challenges for Deaf and Hard of Hearing community

FLINT, Michigan -- The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed many different gaps and disparities in access to healthcare for people of different racial, ethnic, and economic backgrounds. For the Deaf and Hard of Hearing community, hurdles already existed that were intensified during the pandemic.

“People with masks on is a huge barrier for us. It's hard to communicate,” said Flint resident Yuliette Parks. “It's confusing, you know, to see a person with a mask. I don't know if they're talking to me or not talking to me and to read their expressions is very difficult. I feel very lost navigating the world and that.”

Yuliette and Clay Parks are the parents of Lily (11) and Giselle (6) Parks. Yuliette and Clay are Deaf and their children can hear. During the lockdown, mask regulations and quarantining affected the Parks and other Deaf families in ways that have gone unnoticed in much of the coverage of the pandemic. When school switched to virtual for both of the Parks’ children, Google Classroom provided automatic closed captions in virtual sessions but when materials were presented on Zoom, those captions were no longer available. 
Lily Parks works at her desk.“I felt pretty helpless as a mother,” Yuliette Parks said. “You know, we'd see the teacher talking to them and I wondered if they were paying attention, if they're understanding? And I was worried if they were getting it.”

That sort of frustration is something the family, who lives in Mott Park, has become accustomed to, even before the pandemic.

“We’re a long way from being heard, you know what I mean?,” Clay Parks said. “It's not going to happen overnight. I think we've been doing this for years and I feel like we're constantly having to reach out and just to be oppressed and pushed down. We feel like we're underwater, right? And we're barely floating above it. There's no life raft yet. I think many Deaf people have just been like, ah, screw it, whatever I'm just going to live life.”

Raising awareness of the need for closed captions and the absolute need to have an ASL interpreter in public places would help to decrease stressors for the Deaf community during the pandemic.  

Clay’s father was diagnosed with COVID-19 last year.

“That impacted us as a family,” he said. “We didn't see him for one whole month and he decided to stay away from us because he didn't want to hurt us or infect us.”

While Clay’s father was being treated at Hurley Medical Center for COVID-19, he had access to an on-call ASL interpreter for the duration of his care. 

The Communications Access Center in Flint has also been providing COVID testing sites with ASL interpreters. The CAC in Flint has been a place of reference and resource for the Deaf community for several years.
Yuliette Parks standing in her home in Mott Park.“They [CAC] also provided vaccines for the deaf community and had interpreters so that they could communicate with the health department,” said Yuliette Parks. 

While the Parks have overcome the hurdles the pandemic presented, they have also dealt with ongoing misconceptions about being Deaf. 

“I'd like hearing people not be afraid of us, you know?,” Clay Parks said. “If you encounter a Deaf person, get information somewhere about a Deaf person, we're not intimidating. We're not scary. I just want them to approach us with an open mind and get to know some of us.”

“A misconception that hearing people have about the Deaf community is that we can’t do all the things they can,” Yuliette Parks said. “We have jobs and own homes and are able to raise our children like anyone else. What we want for the hearing community to know is that we are capable of everything with the exception of being able to hear. We also want them to know that if they have a deaf child, learning American Sign Language is imperative for themselves and their child. That is something that they cannot ignore or oppress. Without ASL, their child will not thrive. Besides, it’s the best way to communicate with their children and their children will thank them forever.”
Clay Parks holds his middle finger with the word, "can't" tattooed on it, up to his ear.As the world continues to figure out a new, post-pandemic normal and what our future will look like, Clay Parks remains hopeful, “I try to look at it as just like, we're moving through tough times, right?,” he said. “And I can't really worry and obsess about things like this. I try to stay hopeful and just try to stay positive and move forward.”

Special thank you to Myles Hudkins for providing ASL interpreting for this interview and story.

Read more articles by Jenifer Veloso.

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