Deaf People Need Access to Information During Emergencies, Too

A wedding photo of the author and her husband.
Photo courtesy of the author

The following post is part of our series on perspectives from disabled and chronically ill people regarding COVID-19. This post is not intended as medical advice.


70 days.

That was when the last time I saw my Italian husband, on the day he departed for Italy from Las Vegas, Nevada, where my family lives. I had decided to remain in the United States for other reasons.

This was when the possibility of a COVID-19 pandemic affecting us both in the United States and Italy seemed so far away. I would return to Italy at around the end of February as planned.

Then Italy became the epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak in Europe. The U.S. banned flights from the E.U. Italy went into a country-wide lockdown. My husband and I are separated by the Atlantic Ocean, thousands of miles apart – uncertain when we will be reunited again. But that’s okay. The most important thing is for us to remain safe and healthy.

As an American citizen and permanent resident of Italy, I have the right to enter either country during travel restrictions. But I chose to remain in the United States to practice “social distancing” to protect myself, my family, and the communities in the U.S. and Italy, no matter how hard it is to be away from my husband and Italian family members for months.

I am a young, deaf woman who uses both Cochlear Implant and sign language. Deaf people need access to critical information during emergencies like COVID-19.

In the U.S., I am comfortable with English and American Sign Language (ASL). In Italy, I know enough Italian to get around but reading official announcements from the government is still very difficult for me to understand fully. Fortunately, I can understand Italian Sign Language (known as Lingua dei Segni Italiana or LIS) better than Italian so LIS is more accessible for me, a deaf foreigner living in Italy.

Unfortunately, information from official sources such as the Center of Disease Control (CDC) and the White House in the United States and the Italian government at all levels are not always provided in sign languages.

Both leaders of the National Association of the Deaf (NAD) in the United States and the Ente Nazionale Sordi (ENS) in Italy have written letters of complaint to lobby their respective government and broadcasting agencies to provide captions, sign language interpreters, and more to ensure deaf people are not left out in this time of crisis.

In the United States, some state and city governments like NYC and Boston have already provided interpreters on-screen, but we can do better by ensuring all broadcasts include interpreters at all levels of the government.

If my deaf Italian husband were in the U.S. with me, he would not be able to read and understand written English from official sources. He only knows ASL, LIS, and Italian. I would be concerned about him feeling left out if he couldn’t understand the news broadcast in English.

Despite the Italian government’s initial inaction in providing sign language interpreters, as of March 21, they have decided to include LIS interpreters and captions for their press releases. But what I have been most impressed with is how ENS has “stepped up” to take action to ensure the deaf in Italy receive critical information. For example, ENS continuously sends out both information in Italian and LIS across all social media channels. When we see important news in a language we can understand, it will help to ease our worries.

What truly stands out is how ENS has a clear chain of command generally starting from at the highest level (ENS National HQ in Rome) to a regional office (such as Lombardy or Veneto) to an ENS branch in a city (such as Padua or Milan). There are leaders at each level responsible for their respective jurisdictions. When I joined ENS as a new member, I was added to its email list and encouraged to join its Telegram channels for relevant broadcasts from each level (national, regional, and city). For example, the ENS Padua Telegram channel has announced there is an emergency SMS service for the deaf only in the city of Padua area. Within the same Telegram chat app, I also got a broadcast from the ENS National HQ about the announcement and rules of the country-wide quarantine. While I may not be in Italy currently, I appreciate how ENS is keeping me informed.

On the other hand, the United States is a patchwork of public healthcare decisions under different jurisdictions and authorities which leads to a lack of clear, centralized information from relevant jurisdictions. For instance, I did receive general news from the NAD in the U.S. about COVID-19 but nothing relevant to my region and city (Las Vegas, Nevada). There is no easily accessible information on what actions I can take when I am in Las Vegas if I think I may be infected. Is there an emergency SMS service available for the deaf in Las Vegas? How do I communicate with my interpreter if I’m placed in isolation? These are possible common challenges for the deaf in other states and cities.

On the whole, neither country has accessibility for the deaf 100% right on the mark but overall, Italy is doing much better than America. But we have seen ineptitude at the highest level of the government from both Italy and the United States so we must do what we can individually and collectively for our community, country, and loved ones to fight for our access and safety. We need to keep raising our voices and lobbying our government and deaf associations to do more to prepare for future crises to make sure the deaf are not left out.


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Sheila Xu is a deaf freelance writer, copywriter, and content writer based in the United States and Italy. She graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in Science and Humanities from Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2014 and moved to Italy on a Fulbright grant to teach and research at an university in Venice. Connect with Sheila on Twitter @SheilaZXu.

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