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'Silence For Us Is Never Silent:' Celebrating The Deaf Community As They Navigate The Pandemic

Mural of people signing the ASL signs, "SCHOOL FOR T-H-E DEAF" on a brick wall with a green bush in the foreground.
Wikimedia Commons
The people in the image are signing the ASL signs, "SCHOOL FOR T-H-E DEAF"

National Deaf History Month focuses on the contributions that the community has given to American society. We take a look at the experience of being Deaf during the pandemic, through a new art program at the Frost Museum.

Face masks and social distancing are still part of our new normal — they’ve made life more difficult for everyone. Especially those who are deaf or hard of hearing.

They can obstruct facial expressions and mouth movements that are also part of American Sign Language.

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March 13 through April 15 is National Deaf History Month and the Patricia & Phillip Frost Art Museum at Florida International University is celebrating with a free closed-captioned, virtual event Friday, March 19.

It will highlight the contributions of the Deaf community to American society.

WLRN’s Caitie Switalski Muñoz spoke with Miriam Machado, the museum’s director of education, and John Paul Jebian, who is an American Sign Language teacher at G. Holmes Braddock Senior High School and a professor at FIU.

Jebian is deaf and he joined us with an interpreter who spoke on his behalf.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

WLRN: There's some discussion about face masks and how they can mean an extra struggle for people who might need to read someone's lips to communicate. How have you seen that impact your own life and your students?

JEBIAN: It has been pretty difficult. Face masks have become a bit of a challenge because some Deaf individuals do rely on lip-reading. There are different types of face masks that have been created. It can have a clear middle — so it has access to the facial expressions, being able to read lips. And most of the time it's hearing professionals that use those face masks to make it more Deaf-friendly, as opposed to focusing only on the hands, and you're losing half of the language because a lot of the language is on the face. You're getting ASL on the hands along with the facial expressions that are beneficial within the language.

So clear masks are more Deaf-friendly, but the only issue is that they tend to fog up. So the clear masks are the best but there are pros and cons to that as well. They should maybe be set up in a way, maybe through the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) or something, to ensure that any professional that works with the Deaf population — Deaf or hard of hearing population — is provided masks that have a clear middle just to make it more accessible for all the Deaf and hard of hearing individuals.

The museum is also working on making exhibitions accessible to the visually impaired. How are you planning to do that at a time when social distancing is recommended and touch is not?

MACHADO: COVID presents a challenge. But it also presents opportunities for us to grow and develop in new ways. And the most important thing and I recommend this to all individuals who are looking to establish more programing for individuals who need accommodations, or who might have different disabilities, is to bring them into your team. You need to work with the person.

If I didn't work with John Paul I wouldn't be able to do what I do, because he teaches me. There are two architecture students at FIU who are currently working at the Miami Beach Urban Studios to help us develop tactile materials that are 3D printed so that we can, along with an audio description, provide something to touch that will be exactly like what you're seeing on the walls. These things will, of course, have their protocol. We will take precautions always to make sure that everyone is safe, but we can then give people an opportunity to feel the painting, to hear sounds that they can hear even if they can't see them but they can imagine them.

We have to focus on the people, on the humans, on our humanity. We find that there are so many people who enjoy the accommodations that we provide, whether or not they have been legally diagnosed with a disability. So this is something for everyone, all of us can benefit from the accommodations that we can provide for our community.

What do you wish that people took into consideration, even if they're not affected by a disability or closely connected to someone who is?

JEBIAN: The ultimate goal in terms of the general hearing population is just for them to be educated, to understand what the ADA law is, how they can abide by it — whether it’s through their business or within the regular community. Most of the time it seems as though the ADA law seems to be dismissed or not taken seriously. So our ultimate goal is to be able to just educate the masses, let them know what that law includes. And that would be access to information, maybe through a sign language interpreter, having cards, having captioning, anything that would be more Deaf and hard of hearing friendly.

So things like this, being able to meet virtually on Zoom and then being able to set up the live transcription that is truly beneficial for all Deaf and hard of hearing [individuals] involved. So if we can incorporate these things into public places such as museums, I think it would be beneficial for most. The goal is to kind of bridge the gap between the Deaf community and the hearing community and just fill in all those gaps, educate them, let them know that there are individuals that do have disabilities and need to be included. Also just being able to focus on what everybody can do versus what they cannot.

Here is the full zoom conversation with the ASL interpretations. You can add closed captions by clicking the settings on the video.

Leslie Ovalle Atkinson is the former lead producer behind Sundial. As a multimedia producer, she also worked on visual and digital storytelling.
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