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Local
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Facing a new challenge: Deaf community confronts COVID

Stocking Target’s shelves in early 2020 was mostly routine for Lori Blackketter. She’d replenish the grocery section, helping out customers by reading their lips or using a phone to write notes back and forth.

When the pandemic arrived, so did a massive influx of face masks — posing communication problems for deaf people like Blackketter.

“As soon as the pandemic became a huge concern, life dramatically changed,” the Watertown mother said.

Though she said it’s a hard time for nearly everyone, hearing or not, those who speak American Sign Language (ASL) are learning to converse with others in a new way because of COVID-19.

DAILY LIFE

Both a cochlear implant and interpreters help Blackketter communicate. She can hear things like car horns or babies crying and can read lips, but doesn’t always understand spoken language.

In this pandemic, she said Target customers are less willing to swap a phone message out of fear of spreading COVID, and others are more “standoffish” or less likely to spend time communicating differently.

Shoppers are in more of a hurry nowadays, she said. They want to buy what they need and leave quickly to limit potential virus exposure.

“Many people are becoming more cold. They want to stay separate,” Blackketter told the newspaper through a telecommunications relay service. “It’s a challenge and I feel like it’s more of a helpless feeling and vulnerable.”

It’s a challenge.

That’s also a familiar phrase for Gretchen O’Keefe-Ricci, from Burnsville.

Nowadays people wear face masks which can make it hard to know if they’re speaking, let alone speaking to her.

“If they’re looking at me, I’m not really sure,” said O’Keefe-Ricci, who is profoundly deaf and uses hearing aids. “Things are garbled and muffled.”

When she’s out and about, sometimes her 10-year-old son will sign when he hears things, but the pandemic complicates conversation. She can’t pass a piece of paper and a pen back and forth with someone anymore. She can’t always ask someone to pull their mask down so she can read their lips.

When it comes to the virtual classroom, the District 112 ASL teacher has other new issues to work with.

O’Keefe-Ricci has anywhere between 20 to 40 high school students in her level one and two classes, mostly through Chaska High School. Her students need to have their cameras turned on while they meet as a class or in smaller groups.

She communicates with her students with a virtual chat function and has her students watch ASL practice videos when they’re not in class.

“It’s a lot of time to prepare. It’s very time-consuming,” she said with the help of an interpreter. “English is my second language.”

During distance learning, O’Keefe-Ricci can stay physically apart from her students. But that isn’t in the cards for others in the deaf community, particularly those who work as translators.

‘IT’S HARD ... BUT WE DO IT’

Sign language interpreter Deanna Fischer, from Shakopee and recently having moved to Burnsville, works in mental health, legal, general and healthcare positions.

She wears clear face masks when translating for clients in person, which helps deaf and hard-of-hearing people see facial expressions and lips (though Blackketter said sometimes those masks fog up and can be uncomfortably warm). Fischer doesn’t think too much messaging is lost behind a see-through shield, but the physical distancing part can be tough. She gives clients their six feet of space as much as possible, but it’s tough.

“The deaf population, we’re big huggers. We always hug hello and hug goodbye. (We’re a) very warm group of people. It’s awkward. It’s hard to show the same connection and affection at distance, but we do it,” Fischer said. “We’re all happy to see human faces.”

She said interpreting one language to another — English to ASL — is incredibly nuanced. Add another barrier to that with face masks or technology, and it can cause “struggle and stress,” she said.

When Fischer interprets virtually, things can get even trickier.

She used to work in-person maybe 50 times a month, compared to just a couple of times now.

“Deaf people rely so heavily with interpreters to get their message across and understand the message that they’re told,” Fischer said. “That’s one huge obstacle in video, in distance interpreting.”

Jenny McCarty knows that all too well.

She’s a sign language interpreter with M Health Fairview and lives in Victoria.

More people are using virtual telehealth appointments, which often just allows for one doctor to see one patient on the screen. McCarty’s healthcare system approved the virtual video platform Zoom for telehealth purposes, allowing the necessary three screens at one time.

Still, it’s not perfect. Interpreting via video calls could mean not having a clear picture or an inadequate size to see signs with, she said.

Sometimes in-person meetings are necessary, like for surgeries or physical therapy appointments.

In that case, McCarty will don as much personal protective equipment (PPE) as possible: An N95 respirator mask, a gown, gloves, a face shield and face mask.

“It’s more frustrating for the patients. They rely on that whole facial expression for tone and inflection and to get a sense of what doctors just see in the whole face, kind of what the doctor’s demeanor is. (Masks) definitely obstruct communication,” McCarty said.

Non-transparent masks pose problems for interpreters, too.

“We’re trying to be a voice for these deaf folks whose faces are covered up by a mask. It’s hard for us to understand, too,” McCarty said. “It makes our work more exhausting.”

Blackketter recently had an emergency doctor visit for appendicitis. She relied on her boyfriend, who she said is “very skilled” at signing, to translate until the doctor set up Video Remote Interpreting (VRI) with a virtual interpreter.

“We had to really work as a team to figure out how to communicate,” she said. “It was challenging. There were so many overlapping sounds, the connection was not always clear. (But) some communication access is better than nothing at this point.”

The biggest advantage to virtual interpreting, Blackketter said, is finding a virtual translator can be instantaneous. Those requesting in-person interpreters usually have to do so with a 24-hour notice.

ADAPTING, AGAIN

The deaf community is small, Fischer said, and COVID can make it feel smaller. Even those alone in an apartment can often hear sirens or neighbors’ voices, but that’s not the case for everyone. Loneliness can creep in extra.

“The deaf population is very isolated with all of this even though technology is very helpful,” Fischer said. “But it’s not real people.”

McCarty said that technology is used by most in the deaf community but not everyone is fluent with now-popular platforms like Zoom and Google Meets.

Still, Blackketter is holding onto something that strangely ties all people together now: A global pandemic.

“Deaf and hearing people are going through a hard time right now. It doesn’t really matter your hearing ability. This has affected everyone,” she said. “Masks are hard. Deaf people get it. Hearing people get it and it’s just something we have to accept right now to be safe.”

She also thinks deaf people are used to “fighting to survive.” Accessibility isn’t always present, but they adjust.

“Because I’m deaf I’m able to adapt easier to the situation,” Blackketter said. “I’ve been just trying to move ahead with life as much as normal, kind of like you would.”


Community
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Sunny-side up? Chicken ordinance open for comment

Five hens. No egg or meat sales. A $100 permit fee.

That’s all part of Chaska’s proposed draft ordinance, a move that would allow homeowners to keep chickens in the city if approved.

After a July work session and voted-down move several years ago, whether to allow backyard hens in Chaska is back on the table. The proposed draft ordinance, available on the city’s website, includes prohibiting roosters, confining chickens to an enclosed area, and removing animal waste every week.

Also required in the draft ordinance, which Chaskans can submit comments to until Dec. 18, is keeping food enclosed and that all chicken-owners live on a single-family or zoned property.

“Really what it’s attempting to do is put into place guidelines and expectations regarding chicken owners,” said Assistant City Administrator Nate Kabat to the newspaper. “Those individuals may enjoy their chickens and do a fine job maintaining them. The neighbors may or may not feel the same way and (we’ve) got to try to find that balance and create expectations across the board.”

'LABOR OF LOVE'

Those neighbors include Kristen Bartley, a Chaska resident who brought the request to the council a handful of years ago and again this summer.

“It’s definitely been a labor of love,” said Bartley, who has researched nearby city ordinances and benefits of keeping chickens.

She said the draft ordinance proposal, to be looked into further at the city council’s upcoming meeting, is “pretty reasonable.” The $100 yearly permit fee is “a little high” but isn’t too far from what other cities charge, she said.

Kabat said the council checked into Stillwater, Minneapolis and St. Louis Park ordinances for comparisons.

Stillwater and St. Louis Park limit hens to four or five and no roosters, and they charge $50 and $25 according to city documents, respectively. Minneapolis limits roosters to 30 and does allow roosters, with a sliding scale permit fee up to $105.

The community has given feedback during this comment period.

“What we’ve received from people ranges from opposition to support to somewhere in the middle where they're looking for changes or tweaks to what's being proposed,” Kabat said.

A common question that popped up in those conversations: What happens if you’re a part of a homeowner’s association?

The HOA would take precedence, Kabat said. If they say no chickens, no chickens it is — even if the city council approves the move.

Management of the Jonathan Association did not respond to a request for comment.

FLYING FORWARD?

Chaska resident Patricia Williamson said she’s excited about the possible winged addition.

When she lived in rural Illinois a few years ago, she had “a whole big ‘ol flock of chickens” at her hobby farm. She’s already planning where she’ll put the chicken wire and hen house in the yard.

“To me they’re fun. They’re funny. It’s like owning a pet bird but they're bigger,” Williamson said. “I do like getting the occasional fresh egg. It’s just like having an apple tree but a little different.”

After looking over the ordinance, she thought the fencing requirement section needed clarification. The current proposal states residents need an opaque privacy fence if chickens are free-range.

“(It) seems a little bit greater than what should be needed,” Williamson said, noting she already has a four-foot chain link fence for her dog. “It just seems like an excessive barrier for facilitating this for the community.”

She said the best parts about chicken-keeping are the entertainment and education they bring, nutritional value of eggs, and giving leftover food to the hens which can reduce food waste.

“They eat everything from spaghetti on out. They love it. It helps with the cyclical nature of … food and health,” said Williamson, a nutrition scientist with Cargill.

'A LITTLE HAPPY DISTRACTION'

Williamson is not the only Chaskan enticed by the idea.

Kathy Perschmann, who lives in the city’s Jonathan Association, won’t be getting chickens if the ordinance goes through.

“If you saw my yard, you’d go … It looks like wilderness,” she said with a laugh, noting all her ferns and hostas wouldn’t allow for any hen room.

But if her neighbors decided to jump on the chicken caravan, she’d support it. Maybe she could even trade some zucchini for fresh eggs, she said, and chicken-keeping could be less obnoxious than barking dogs or loud neighbors.

“I think people should be able to have chickens, especially (because) everything is as unsettling as it is these days,” Perschmann said.

Bartley, who spearheaded the call, said people across the board — in city council and neighbors alike — aren’t going into this without doing their research.

“The ordinance covers the bases for people to participate, while keeping their neighbors in mind and animals safe,” she said.

Bartley’s in-laws are donating an old playhouse to hopefully convert into a chicken abode. She awaits a council decision with excitement — perhaps about excrement.

“We spend a lot of time outside and it would just be a nice little addition, especially in these days when everything’s crazy. It’s nice to have a little happy distraction,” Bartley said. “Chicken-keeping is a labor of love with so many benefits… I actually have a neighbor that can’t wait because she wants the chicken excrement.”

Kabat said Dec. 21 is slated for a council work session based on Chaskans’ input. From there, the city will decide whether to move forward and eventually adopt the proposal, seek changes, or reach out for further public comment.


Community
top story
Sunny-side up? Chicken ordinance open for comment

Five hens. No egg or meat sales. A $100 permit fee.

That’s all part of Chaska’s proposed draft ordinance, a move that would allow homeowners to keep chickens in the city if approved.

After a July work session and an unsuccessful proposal several years ago, whether to allow backyard hens in Chaska is back on the table. The proposed draft ordinance, available on the city’s website, includes prohibiting roosters, confining chickens to an enclosed area, and removing animal waste every week.

Also required in the draft ordinance, which Chaskans can submit comments to until Dec. 18, is keeping food enclosed and that all chicken-owners live on a single-family or zoned property.

“Really what it’s attempting to do is put into place guidelines and expectations regarding chicken owners,” said Assistant City Administrator Nate Kabat to the newspaper. “Those individuals may enjoy their chickens and do a fine job maintaining them. The neighbors may or may not feel the same way and (we’ve) got to try to find that balance and create expectations across the board.”

‘LABOR OF LOVE’

Those neighbors include Kristen Bartley, a Chaska resident who brought the request to the council a handful of years ago and again this summer.

“It’s definitely been a labor of love,” said Bartley, who has researched nearby city ordinances and benefits of keeping chickens.

She said the draft ordinance proposal, to be looked into further at the city council’s upcoming meeting, is “pretty reasonable.” The $100 yearly permit fee is “a little high” but isn’t too far from what other cities charge, she said.

Kabat said the council checked into Stillwater, Minneapolis and St. Louis Park ordinances for comparisons.

Stillwater and St. Louis Park limit hens to four or five and no roosters, and they charge $50 and $25 according to city documents, respectively. Minneapolis limits hens to 30 and does allow roosters, with a sliding scale permit fee up to $105.

The community has given feedback during this comment period.

“What we’ve received from people ranges from opposition to support to somewhere in the middle where they’re looking for changes or tweaks to what’s being proposed,” Kabat said.

A common question that popped up in those conversations: What happens if you’re a part of a homeowner’s association?

The HOA would take precedence, Kabat said. If they say no chickens, no chickens it is — even if the city council approves the move.

Management of the Jonathan Association did not respond to a request for comment.

FLYING FORWARD?

Chaska resident Patricia Williamson said she’s excited about the possible winged addition.

When she lived in rural Illinois a few years ago, she had “a whole big ‘ol flock of chickens” at her hobby farm. She’s already planning where she’d put the chicken wire and hen house in the yard.

“To me they’re fun. They’re funny. It’s like owning a pet bird but they’re bigger,” Williamson said. “I do like getting the occasional fresh egg. It’s just like having an apple tree but a little different.”

After looking over the ordinance, she thought the fencing requirement section needed clarification. The current proposal states residents need an opaque privacy fence if chickens are free-range.

“(It) seems a little bit greater than what should be needed,” Williamson said, noting she already has a four-foot chain link fence for her dog. “It just seems like an excessive barrier for facilitating this for the community.”

She said the best parts about chicken-keeping are the entertainment and education they bring, nutritional value of eggs, and giving leftover food to the hens which can reduce food waste.

“They eat everything from spaghetti on out. They love it. It helps with the cyclical nature of … food and health,” said Williamson, a nutrition scientist with Cargill.

Bartley, who spearheaded the call, said people across the board — in city council and neighbors alike — aren’t going into this without doing their research.

“The ordinance covers the bases for people to participate, while keeping their neighbors in mind and animals safe,” she said.

“We spend a lot of time outside and it would just be a nice little addition, especially in these days when everything’s crazy. It’s nice to have a little happy distraction,” Bartley said.

Kabat said Dec. 21 is slated for a council work session based on Chaskans’ input. From there, the city will decide whether to move forward and eventually adopt the proposal, seek changes, or reach out for further public comment.


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