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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.


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.

Photo courtesy of Lori Blackketter 

Lori Blackketter signs "coronavirus." She remembers learning the American Sign Language word in The Daily Moth, a deaf news service. Photo does not show the entire ASL signing area, which includes the face.

“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.


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.


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.”