As cities across China battled the COVID-19 pandemic, lockdowns and quarantines put the country’s more than 20 million deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals in a vulnerable position. Although the entire DHH community faced challenges in accessing important information, socializing, or communicating with delivery and medical workers, the barriers were especially high for middle-aged and elderly DHH Chinese, who generally have lower levels of literacy and are more reliant on sign language to communicate.
Indeed, flashy technological advances like hearing aids and cochlear implants lead many to underestimate the communication difficulties members of the DHH community, myself included, continue to face. In addition to the inherent limitations of these technologies, poor literacy prevents many DHH individuals from following television subtitles, participating in epidemiological surveys, and accessing community services. These dilemmas are even more acute for families in which several members are hard of hearing.
In addition, full-time sign language interpreters remain relatively scarce in China, especially in medical, legal, and educational settings. After one illiterate, hard-of-hearing 75-year-old COVID-19 patient was admitted to Huoshenshan Hospital in the central city of Wuhan, medical staff there were forced to search their social media contacts to find someone who could speak sign language. In nearby Leishenshan Hospital, five of one ward’s 34 COVID-19 inpatients were hard of hearing. The nurses there had to learn sign language on the fly, with access only to badly outdated instructional videos. Their opaque protective clothing, masks, and goggles made it even harder for their patients to effectively and accurately obtain information through signals, facial expressions, and lip-reading.
These and other difficulties have led to renewed calls from the DHH community for “barrier-free” information access. In numerous chat groups, I watched as deaf and hard-of-hearing people of different ages, genders, educational backgrounds, and occupations joined together to vent their frustrations about their feelings of isolation and desire for accessible services such as sign language interpreting and subtitles.
One sore spot was how difficult it was to access authoritative updates about the outbreak. As early as 2012, China mandated all governments above the county level to provide “barrier-free information exchange services,” including both sign language interpretation and subtitles, when making important government announcements. However, prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, televised press conferences only rarely included sign language interpretation.
It took time, but the situation gradually improved as the pandemic wore on. On Feb. 4, local officials in Beijing took the lead by adding sign language interpreters to press briefings on COVID-19 prevention and control. Learning from international practices, interpreters wore homemade masks with a transparent central section to allow DHH individuals to read their facial expressions and lips. The cities of Tianjin and Shanghai followed suit, with the latter allocating one-third of the screen to the sign language interpreter — instead of the usual small box — and subtitling all live broadcasts. On Feb. 10, the State Council, China’s Cabinet, offered simultaneous sign language interpretation on a live broadcast for the first time.
Social organizations also helped link members with official updates and medical information. The China Association of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing produced social app WeChat videos reminding DHH not to go out unless absolutely necessary. Local associations also compiled verified media reports and invited users proficient in sign language to shoot short recaps and post them on social media. And in the southwestern city of Chongqing, officials asked trained psychologists for their advice on DHH individuals trapped inside due to the outbreak, turning their tips into animated shorts and publishing them on social media.
Due to high demand, grassroots media content created by and for DHH individuals also played an important role during the outbreak. Statistics show that at the peak of China’s epidemic, WeChat articles, Weibo microblogs, and short videos on Douyin and Kuaishou targeting the DHH community were produced mostly by individuals or loose nongovernmental volunteer organizations. These covered everything from news and current affairs to health tips, information on disability rights, and psychological counseling.
Although the pandemic has improved information accessibility in China, these advances still fall short of fully meeting the needs of DHH Chinese. Take the distribution of epidemic prevention materials, for example. During a crisis, access to accurate information is absolutely crucial. Yet much of what circulated on social media earlier this year was either redundant or factually questionable. Even organizations trying to produce accessible options sometimes failed to offer both sign language and subtitles, perhaps because they were unaware of the different needs of DHH individuals.
According to a 2016 World Health Organization guideline, infectious disease response plans should address the needs of individuals and groups considered particularly vulnerable and ensure they have access to key services and resources. Life as a member of the DHH community can be isolating, even at the best of times. In a pandemic, it is all the more important to ensure the community is not left adrift in a sea of misinformation. As it reviews the lessons of the past six months, China should keep the importance of accessibility in mind.
Translator: David Ball; editors: Cai Yineng and Kilian O’Donnell; portrait artist: Zhang Zeqin.
(Header image: A sign-language interpreter wears a special face mask during a news conference in Beijing, Feb. 4, 2020. Mao Jianjun/CNS/People Visual)