The use of protective masks worn by healthcare workers is more important than ever, however without effective communication tools, masks can alienate the 48 million people in America who live with hearing loss — many of whom rely on lip-reading to help with communication.
Disability and hearing loss advocate Jack Clevenger learned this the hard way recently when he found himself unable to communicate with masked paramedics trying to help him during a medical emergency at his home.
A lesson learned during a harrowing experience:
On Easter Sunday, April 12th 2020, Jack Clevenger woke up feeling extremely ill. He tried walking to his kitchen for a glass of water, but collapsed on the ground where his wife found him. Masked first responders entered his home in enhanced PPE and ran through a slew of urgent questions about Clevenger’s medical history and the symptoms he was experiencing.
Partially conscious, without his cochlear implant processor on and unable to see their mouths to lip-read, Clevenger could not understand the paramedics. His wife helped with communication and Clevenger was eventually cleared and told that he had severe dehydration.
Happy to be in good health, Clevenger was left haunted by his inability to effectively communicate with first responders in such a critical moment.
Clevenger understood that during the the coronavirus pandemic, first responders could not take any chances by removing their protective masks so that he could read their lips, but there had to be another solution. He thought about the other 11,000 people with hearing loss in his community of Prescott, Arizona — many of whom live alone — and wondered what they would do during a medical emergency, without a plan for effective communication.
“[This] brought home to me how very important it is to be an educational advocate for others with hearing loss, those who are not as experienced with hearing loss, those who are not aware of assistive technology other than their hearing aids, and those who have not learned effective compensation and communication skills,” Clevenger tells Yahoo Lifestyle.
A call to action for first responders:
Clevenger got in touch with his local fire chief via email and shared his experience. He received a reply that very same day that read, “What can we do?”
He stressed that for the 98% of people in the hearing loss community who don’t know sign language, having an interpreter on staff would not fix this problem. He shared information about voice dictation tools that paramedics could have ready on the iPads they use. Live captioning apps could help patients understand first responders even with their masks on.
Later that day, the battalion chief in charge of paramedics in Prescott asked that all units have captioning tools downloaded and available on iPads.
When it comes to bettering the lives of the hearing loss community, Clevenger is an advocate in every sense of the word. After spending nearly a decade installing captioning telephones, he managed the disabilities services office in colleges, and founded a local chapter of the national Hearing Loss Association in his area to aid with support and education.
That’s why Clevenger knew he could make a difference in his community.
“People with hearing loss do not have a history of being assertive. If there is a lack of communication they simply withdraw and walk away,” he shares, “In my case with the paramedics, I could’ve just said, ‘Well that’s just what it is, there’s nothing I can do about it.’ No. Something can be done about it, and it is being done.”
He urges those with hearing loss to be proactive in helping people communicate.
Advocates of all ages making a difference:
An 11 year-old deaf advocate named Shaylee Mansfield shares Clevenger’s sentiment when it comes to speaking out for accessibility tools for the deaf or hard of hearing.
She recently posted a video on Facebook about how the lack of captioning on social media makes content inaccessible for those who are deaf or living with hearing loss. She highlighted that Instagram’s lack of captioning tools leaves her unable to understand videos posted by her favorite creators. Mansfield is urging Instagram to add quality automatic captioning on the platform, making it easier for users to make content that is totally accessible. That way everyone can enjoy it — not just those who can hear.
When it comes to better communication between those with hearing and those with hearing loss, Clevenger says the responsibility goes two ways. Organizations can prioritize captioning and accessibility, and individuals can utilize tools like Google Live Transcribe to communicate with the deaf or hard of hearing. He says that those with hearing loss can also help by making a concerted effort to teach others about tools that can help people communicate with them.
After living with hearing loss for all of his 70 years, Clevenger has seen accessibility technology improve by leaps and bounds. Making others aware of these communication tools and normalizing their use is the next step. It could even end up saving lives during a medical emergency.
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