COVID-19 causes challenges for deaf students

Former UW System deaf students reflect on difficulties adjusting to online learning and navigating through a global pandemic


The pair of hearing aids that Shannon Gunderson uses daily. (Submitted)

Sitting at her desk with frustration, 22-year-old Shannon Gunderson, was attending her virtual lecture. Although the class was visible, she was unable to hear a word her professor spoke.

In the middle of her 2020 spring semester of college, Gunderson, a former student at UW-Eau Claire, was forced to adapt to virtual learning quickly due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Not only did Gunderson have to get used to Zoom lectures and online exams, but she had to do so as a deaf college student. 

“I really fell behind,” Gunderson said. 

Gunderson, who graduated from UWEC last December, was one of about 20 students involved in the Services for Students with Disabilities program at the university. 

“One of the biggest factors when deciding where I wanted to go to school was their Services for Students with Disabilities,” Gunderson said. “Eau Claire really spoke to me because right away they were like ‘we want to set up a meeting and get you situated as quick as possible.’” 

Like Gunderson, 23-year-old Hannah McGilkey, who is a former student at the University of Wisconsin-Stout, is also deaf. 

“Most of the time, I get along pretty well with hearing aids,” she said, “but it is a struggle with anything beyond the ideal environments.”

When the pandemic forced schools to go completely online, students with hearing loss such as Gunderson and McGilkey said it was essential for them to receive accurate closed-captioning available while attending class from home. 

“Even being able to lip read virtually, the sound quality is still not the same, and hearing aids don’t pick that up as well,” McGilkey said. 

Former UW-Stout student Hannah McGilkey poses for a selfie. (Submitted)

“My interpreter and I didn’t really know what to do,” Gunderson said. “There was no way for her to interpret for me at this time. So I didn’t have an interpreter, and I struggled tremendously with learning online. I had nothing that was able to translate what the professor was saying.”

Vicky Thomas, the director of Services for Students with Disabilities at UW-Eau Claire, said it was a long process working to help students like Gunderson get the resources needed to help them learn efficiently while virtual.

“The first thing we had to do,” Thomas said, “was see if any of the course content that was delivered by Youtube or video that students were expected to watch or listen to, that they were captioned.” 

Thomas said thankfully, the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning at UW-Eau Claire was able to step in, but because so many students were in need of closed-captioning for their classes, they had to reach out for more help. 

“We have a vendor outside who’s a national known vendor,” Thomas said. “We send the material and they caption it. They claim to be 98% accurate.”

She said accuracy is important because for some classes, words need to be spelled correctly. 

After months of converting to a virtual school setting, Gunderson and McGilkey said that wasn’t the only challenge during the pandemic. 

That’s because in public now, face masks are the new normal. 

Former UW-Eau Claire student Shannon Gunderson poses for a selfie. (Submitted)

“It really does suck,” Gunderson said. “I don’t know what’s going on when people are talking with a mask.”

Gunderson said she fully supports wearing masks to help slow the spread of COVID-19, but many people aren’t aware of others who rely on lip reading when they can’t hear. 

“I was fortunate enough,” she said, “to have a mom with wonderful coworkers who made clear masks for me to have and hand out to people I have daily interactions with.” 

Gunderson and McGilkey said the accommodations the university’s and their friends made, helped them stay on track in school.

They say if there is anything you can do to help deaf people during this difficult time, it is to wear a clear face mask and be patient with others because you don’t know what a stranger may be going through.