Deaf community members in Eau Claire feel left behind in the COVID-19 pandemic

People who are deaf in Eau Claire are frustrated with the lack of aid from the community


UW-Eau Claire

Rachel Kohn has been uploading videos of her interpreting COVID-19 announcements from the Eau Claire Health Department.

Grace Olson

Kyra Sommerfeld went to her bank to take out $150 from her account. When the bank teller asked, “How can I help you?” Sommerfeld’s only response was a look of confusion. She has been losing her hearing since she was 14 years old.

“Especially the masks are difficult. I feel terrible because sometimes I just have to say, ‘I can’t understand you,’ Sommerfeld said. “But by asking them to remove it (their mask), they’re exposing themselves, too.”

The deaf community of Eau Claire is facing multiple injustices as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Interpreters are not always available for COVID-19 updates and, closed captioning does not always conform to commonly used American Sign Language Sommerfeld said.

Sommerfeld said she often uses speech communication and does it so well, most people she comes in contact with have no clue she can’t hear.

Sommerfeld said she normally depends on lip reading to communicate, but with the COVID-19 pandemic protocols such Gov. Tony Evers’ mask mandate, lip reading is nearly impossible.

Lack of Interpreters

Sometimes people will ask Sommerfeld to use a pen and pencil, but she said that’s awkward for brief interactions, and many people don’t carry around a pen and pencil.

Sommerfeld said she has had to make sacrifices during the pandemic, such as quitting her teaching job to lower her risk of being exposed to COVID-19 and often not understanding what is being said around her.

But one of biggest struggles she has had to face is the lack of closed captioning and deaf interpreters available during COVID-19 updates from the Eau Claire Health Department.

Audrey Boerner of the Eau Claire City-County Health Department said they are safety concerns that prevent having interpreters.

“For safety, we are not able to have the interpreters in the same room as the main presenter,” Boerner said.

Boerner said the health department has been working with two ASL interpreters who work to provide real-time interpretation of the COVID-19 media briefings through a Facebook live stream.

Deaf or hard of hearing viewers can tune in live to the interpreter’s Facebook page to watch the interpreter in real time. Or viewers can follow a link to the recorded interpretation of the briefing to watch at a later date, Boerner said.

Boerner also said closed captions in ASL would require manual input, and because some people who are deaf or hard of hearing do not speak ASL, they find it important to have captions in English as well as working with ASL interpreters.

When closed captioning is used, it can be hard for deaf or hard of hearing people to understand, because ASL uses different grammar than English, Sommerfeld said.

Another issue with this, Sommerfeld said, is different reading educational levels.

“They (people who are deaf or hard of hearing) weren’t given the same education opportunities, so their reading is at a third or fifth grade level,” Sommerfeld said. “So, some of those public announcements are using words that are far beyond a third or fifth-grade level.”

Sommerfeld said after having these issues so many times, she starts to get frustrated and takes it personally.

“At some point, I don’t care, even though that’s not to my benefit, I’m done trying,” Sommerfeld said. “It can’t be that important if you didn’t try very hard to put in the captioning.”

Dawn Koplitz, one of the women who has been interpreting the briefings, said she decided to start interpreting them because someone had to tell the deaf community.

“I just thought, somebody has to let the deaf community what’s going on,” Koplitz said. “I just decided to start interpreting what was being told to everybody else on TV.”

Koplitz said when she started, the safer-at-home order was in effect, so keeping up with with the posts wasn’t too difficult. She said she would have the TV beside her and then interpret what was being said, so people could see who she was interpreting for.

But then the briefings moved to the Health Department’s Facebook page. Koplitz said this proved to be more difficult, because she didn’t know how to set up the needed technology.

She said she figured out how to have her iPad face her and instead would just listen to the briefings on her computer.

After a week or two of doing this, she contacted the Health Department to let them know she was uploading these videos. Koplitz said they were thankful to her and added a link to their website and Facebook page, so the videos could be seen by more people.

Rachel Kohn, an ASL interpreter for the Eau Claire Area School District, also has been posting COVID-19 briefing interpretations and said interpreting over video can be difficult and challenging for her.

“When I’m in a classroom I sign large, but on video I have to sign small. And in the classroom, I look around, but on video I have to look right at the camera, or it just doesn’t look right,” Kohn said.

Kohn said the governor uses certified deaf interpreters during his briefings, which is new in the last decade. Kohn said there is a hearing interpreter providing sign language to the deaf interpreter, which provides a direct connection from deaf interpreter to deaf consumer.

“Deaf consumers appreciate that, having someone from their own culture providing that information,” Kohn said.

Kristin Scheibe, an ASL professor at UW-Eau Claire who is deaf, said not all deaf people have web access, let alone Facebook.

So, while these interpretations can be very helpful, not all members of the deaf community are able to watch these videos, Scheibe said.

Scheibe said she has feelings of concern and frustration, because just like everyone else, she wants to know what’s going on and what she needs to do.

“I’ve been having to depend on my hearing friends, asking them what I need to do,” Scheibe said. “I’m having to go to the internet to check that information.”

Common Miscommunications and Struggles

Erin Odegard, a deaf community member, said she hasn’t seen much being done to help the deaf community in Eau Claire.

Odegard said wearing a mask yields many communication issues between interpreters and people who are deaf or hard of hearing.

“There can be a lot of misunderstanding it’s hard to read facial expressions because of the masks,” Odegard said. “It’s hard we have to constantly – on both ends – ask for clarification.”

Odegard said it would be helpful to have clear shields or clear masks available so both parties can see facial expressions.

Odegard said technology has been helpful during these times, like the Google app “Live Transcribe.” This app provides real-time transcriptions of conversations and sends notifications to your phone of potentially dangerous situations. For example, if a fire alarm goes off in a building or a house, the app will send a notification alerting the user.

There is also a program called D-Pan, Deaf Professional Arts Network, a nonprofit organization that works to make “music and music culture – the predominant shared language and experience of people worldwide – universally accessible by extending its reach to the deaf and hard of hearing,” according to their website.

D-Pan provides ASL captions and transcriptions of audio or video content to written English. There is a 72-hour turnaround or, users can pay a rush fee for a 24-hour turnaround.

Odegard said programs like these are the biggest help for communication. She is able to communicate with her coworkers with a six foot distance and wear a mask.

Issues in the medical field

Another big issue the deaf community has faced is unclear communication methods in the medical field, Scheibe said.

Scheibe said there are some interpreters who are familiar with medical terminology, but that’s not common in the Eau Claire area.

Scheibe said she’s had medical professionals who pulled down their mask because they want her to lip read. But she said she is not comfortable with this and will ask to communicate with writing notes on paper back and forth.

Scheibe said this is a common occurrence for many deaf people. Medical professionals will assume the deaf patient can read their lips, but as an example, “know” and “no” will read the same on the lips.

Because of this, Scheibe said she is nervous to indicate that she can lip read even a little bit, because of times like these, where words can be easily misunderstood.

“A lot of times within the deaf community, especially in medical places, deaf people tend to just sit there and nod and just accept it,” Scheibe said. “Even if the medical professional is willing to write back and forth, that doesn’t necessarily mean the deaf person has familiarity with the vocabulary, even if it’s written down, they might not understand it.”

Another issue Sommerfeld said she experienced, was finding a new job. According to the Yang-Tan Institute’s at Cornell University analysis of 2019 American Community Survey data, an estimated 39.5% of people with a hearing disability in the U.S. were employed full time in 2018.

Sommerfeld said it’s scary going out to look for a job, even with her master’s degree, knowing she has a lower chance of being hired because she is hard of hearing.

Because she can lip read so well, Sommerfeld said most people don’t know she is hard of hearing, and she likes to keep it that way as long as possible. But in circumstances such as job interviews, she often has to explain this right away.

Sommerfeld said many companies will ask to do a phone interview, but she will offer to do a video interview. Many times, they will tell her they don’t have the technology for a video interview, so she has to tell them that she doesn’t have another choice.

In general, Sommerfeld said Eau Claire has not done much to aid the deaf community. Now that COVID-19 has been in the U.S. for 11 months, Sommerfeld said it’s insulting that Eau Claire hasn’t done more.

“You’ll see La Crosse has it (interpreters on TV), Madison has it, everybody but Eau Claire has it,” Sommerfeld said.

Sommerfeld said the coronavirus has been especially isolating for the deaf community. This community is very tight knit. A group used to meet about once a week just to sign and form camaraderie, but this hasn’t been possible lately, she said.

Words from the Deaf Community

Scheibe said she wants to remind the hearing community that members of the deaf community are still human. All experiences are individualized, she said. “We are not all the same.”

Sommerfeld said while the phrase “I don’t see you as deaf/disabled” is meant well it’s actually insulting on three fronts.

“When you don’t see my deafness, you’re not acknowledging the challenges I deal with or things you take for granted,” Sommerfeld said.

Sommerfeld said she has to fight for the same education opportunities that her hearing peers have. She can’t enlist in the army and has been turned down for volunteer positions she is qualified for, simply because they don’t want to deal with a deaf person.

With the phrase “I don’t see you as deaf/disabled,” the unique contributions she has as a hard of hearing person can make are erased, Sommerfeld said.

Being deaf or hard of hearing is not good or bad, it just is, she said. If someone refuses to see someone as deaf, they are less likely to address their communication needs.

“Deafness isn’t always considered a disability. There’s a lot of history behind that,” Scheibe said. “We do not label ourselves as disabled. We say the only thing we cannot do is hear.”

Sommerfeld said she becomes frustrated with the lack of resources Eau Claire is offering the deaf community. After seeing multiple COVID-19 updates, it becomes difficult to lip read and peace the news together and to decipher what is new or what is being repeated.

“Eventually it becomes very wearing and becomes exhausting,” Sommerfeld said. “And it kind of gets to the point if there’s still things that are super important like a vaccine comes out, someone will tell me.”