Founded in Kentwood, Michigan in 1996, Deaf and Hard of Hearing Services serves 27 Western Michigan counties with a mission of providing “equal communication access, education and advocacy to the Deaf, DeafBlind and Hard-of-Hearing in pursuit of all life’s opportunities.”
Deaf and Hard of Hearing Services’ work encompasses a wide range of programs, including interpreter referral, access to assistive technology, and youth programming, but one large part of their mission is to educate private and public entities about how to best interact with and support Deaf, DeafBlind and Hard-of-Hearing (DDBHH) people. This became an even more essential task at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The pandemic created widespread uncertainty, and raised inequity in accessing reliable data and resources, particularly for marginalized populations. Throughout the past year, Deaf and Hard of Hearing Services has worked hard to ensure access to COVID-19-related information for DDBHH people. This has included working with their local Health Department to include American Sign Language (ASL) interpreters at COVID-19 briefings, and creating ASL-based vaccine-related informational videos.
COVID-19 vaccination efforts have also presented new access challenges for DDBHH people. For example, many registration protocols are inaccessible for DDBHH people, with some locations requiring the use of maze-like phone tree systems, and others featuring hastily built websites that are inaccessible via tools like screen readers. Accommodations at vaccination sites themselves have also been inconsistent, with many DDBHH people navigating medical settings with spotty VRI connections or completely without ASL interpretation. As a result, Deaf-led organizations have been taking the lead in serving their communities. On the national level, CSD has created an ASL-based COVID-19 hotline and resource center, and Health Signs Center continues to provide up-to-date and accessible information on all public health issues including COVID-19. Now, through the microgrant program, the Foundation can support Deaf and Hard of Hearing Services’ work at the local level, too.
The Foundation’s COVID-19 Emergency Response microgrant funding has supported Deaf and Hard of Hearing Services in their efforts of making vaccine-related information, and vaccination processes themselves, accessible and equitable for DDBHH individuals. This includes providing accessible scientific information about the vaccine, assistance with the online registration process, and education for vaccine providers about how to best contact and communicate with DDBHH patients.
Deaf and Hard of Hearing Services has also partnered with Kent County Health Department to establish a vaccination clinic for DDBHH community members across Michigan. The clinic, featuring ASL interpreters and other accommodations, administered dose one of the Pfizer vaccination on May 10th. Community members will return for their second dose on June 3rd. Participants in the clinic were thrilled to have a linguistically accessible clinic, with some saying it was the deciding factor in their choice to receive the vaccine.
“We are thrilled to award a microgrant to Deaf and Hard of Hearing Services to make the COVID-19 vaccine registration and clinic accessible for their local deaf community,” said Sasha Ponappa, Director of CSD Unites Community Foundation. “Access to the vaccine is an important tool to help stop the pandemic and protect our communities.”
“We depend on individual donations and grants,” said Deaf and Hard of Hearing Services’ Board President, Rowan S. O’Dougherty. “Our mission focuses on advocacy and education, and the CSD Unites Community Foundation grant supports our agency in providing that. It allows us, in partnership with our local health department, to set up a clinic for our community where they can get the COVID vaccine. So, on behalf of Deaf and Hard of Hearing Services and the Deaf, DeafBlind, and Hard of Hearing communities we serve, we want to say thank you!”