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For Blind, Deaf St. Louisans, Pandemic Adds New Challenges

Nick Silver and Liz Houghton run 200-meter sprints at the St. Louis University Track on December 1, 2019.
File photo | Shahla Farzan | St. Louis Public Radio

Most people have become uncomfortable navigating public life in the months since the new coronavirus hit, but things are even more difficult for those who experience the world differently than the majority, such as blind people or those who are deaf.

Nick Silver is the owner of the Human Repair Shop, and he is almost completely blind. He started losing his eyesight at age four. 

As a father of six, he has gotten used to challenges. But the mandate that parents offer e-learning at home proved difficult, mainly because the technology chosen by his kids’ school district isn’t compatible with the Apple screen reader he generally relies upon.

“Accessing their schoolwork on their Chromebooks was a bit of a challenge,” he said. “If they did have, say, an Apple iPad or a Macbook Pro, I could simply go into that system, press two buttons and access their entire system [via Apple’s VoiceOver].”

Another big complication for Silver is his ability to exercise. He is a long-distance runner, and he typically runs with a guide.

“I actually haven’t run since Feb. 20,” he said. “It’s kind of hard to socially distance while guide running.”

To cope, Silver purchased a treadmill for his basement. While he runs, he tries to focus on the treadmill’s digital display light to orient himself.

“That really came through in the thick of it, when I tried to focus on staying in shape and staying active, because I love running. It’s just what I do, but as I lose more and more sight, it becomes more of a challenge,” he said. “I also use the safety features on the treadmill. There’s a ripcord I can use to hold on to, and if I get too far back or if I get kicked off the treadmill, it will automatically stop.”

For Colleen Burdiss, coordinator for the deaf and hard of hearing at Paraquad, a nonprofit that aims to empower people with disabilities, the fact that most everyone now wears masks has made it difficult for her to have conversations. She is herself deaf, and she counts on lip-reading those who don’t sign. Most masks make that impossible.

Burdiss said that people using masks with a clear plastic lining has made reading lips easier. She advised those interested in receiving a clear mask to contact the Missouri Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, which is currently accepting requests from Missouri residents who are deaf or work with the deaf.

Overall, “Just be patient,” Burdiss said. “Sometimes [people] get very, very upset. They think that I’m not trying to pay attention to them, or they think that I’m making it up that I have hearing loss. And it’s like, ‘No, I apologize, I’m deaf. Could you repeat what you were trying to say?’ That’s just kind of how we navigate the world.”

She advised, “If a deaf person can’t understand you, maybe back up a little bit and pull your mask down so we can understand each other while social distancing.”

Silver and Burdiss joined host Sarah Fenske Monday on St. Louis on the Air. Burdiss spoke with Fenske via a sign language interpreter, and a transcript of their conversation can be read below.

Hear the entire conversation:

A transcript of Sarah Fenske's conversation with Colleen Burdiss:

Sarah Fenske: What has it been like to communicate with others during this pandemic, at a time when work meetings are done via video calls and people wear masks in stores?

Colleen Burdiss: Really, it's going great. All that I have to do is I pin the video so that I can have access to the interpreter that's also connected to the meeting the whole time. And that's been going great so far.

Fenske: Okay, so there's an interpreter who then joins in that call, and they're helping you to be able to get what you need so that the system works for you?

Burdiss: Yes. And also, if I have any questions, or if I want to jump into a discussion, then the interpreter can see me as well. And then they are my voice for that meeting. So I'm there and present the whole time.

Fenske: Tell me how it works for you, as you're seeing somebody who's wearing a mask and you're trying to communicate with them. What sort of challenges does that add?

Burdiss: I have been lucky here at work with social distancing. They'll socially distance and then pull their masks down a little bit, so that I'm able to read their lips.

Fenske: That's great. So at work, it's working well. Tell me what it's like out in the general public. I know at, say, most grocery stores these days, masks are required. Is that a problem for you?

Burdiss: Grocery stores? No, it's not been a problem there because you go in, you get what you gotta get, you pay, you know, at the machine, sometimes self checkout. But for example, like a home improvement store or a lighting store, a lot of people at this time are doing renovations. So that's where we have kind of been going, and those stores are where we're struggling because we'll have several questions about which product is better or recommendations, and some people just aren't real nice about it. So I tell them, would you mind having another person help me because I need someone that can communicate with me better, and so I’ve had success doing that.

Fenske: Okay, so in those stores where you don't have to make small talk, you can just get in there, get what you need, check out, that's all working good. But those sorts of interactions that we all get used to having with clerks, it sounds like that's a problem. You say there's some people that haven't been nice about it. Tell me a little bit about that. Do people just not understand why you need this?

Burdiss: I think it's more that they don't understand. Or they're protecting themselves too, I have to remember that they're protecting their health and safety. I kind of understand that. It's been kind of hard. I've been actually avoiding going to certain places where people don't know me, I tend to go to places that I frequent and people know who I am. I've lived on the south side of the city for over 20 years. So I tend to go to the same places and see the same people that know who my husband and I are.

Fenske: We've heard some talk about people advocating for some sort of clear mask. Do you have any sense of whether that would be something that would help solve the problem for you?

Burdiss: Well, it has been working for me. I don't know about other deaf people in the community. I do know that the Missouri Commission for the Deaf and hard of hearing… they have sent out an email last week... saying that they were able to procure a large donation of clear masks. And so they were able to distribute them to the whole state of Missouri. And so I ordered some. We'll see how it goes.

Fenske: Okay, so Missouri residents might be able to get their hands on these. But I imagine that's probably going to be a really small percentage of the population wearing them. What would you want people to know who are encountering somebody who's deaf or hard of hearing, and they don't have access to a mask like that?

Burdiss: Just be patient. If a deaf person can't understand you, maybe back up a little bit and pull your mask down, so that we can understand each other while still social distancing, and I can lip read you. Many deaf people can lip read, but understand that's not universal. So I can't speak for all deaf people's preferences. 

Fenske: So that might be something that would work. If people back up and get that good, six feet or more of space in there, you're saying you can read lips at that distance? 

Burdiss: Oh, yeah. 

Fenske: That's great to know. So there are some solutions here: clear masks are on the way, lip reading can work, people can step back. Is there anything else you'd want people to know who just want to do the right thing, but just don't have the information they need to know about just how to be a good ally to people who are deaf or dealing with being hard of hearing?

Burdiss: Just try to understand that if a person points to their ears and shakes their head, obviously, they're trying to indicate that they're deaf and they can't hear you. I've noticed that when I'm in the store perusing, someone or one of the staff will try to talk to me from behind. And I don't hear them, obviously. And so they'll tap me a little bit too hard, which is shocking, because they don't realize I'm deaf. Or sometimes they get very, very upset. They think that I'm not trying to pay attention to them, or they'll think that I'm making it up that I have hearing loss, and it's like, ‘No, I apologize. I'm deaf. Could you repeat what you were trying to say?’ So that's just kind of how we navigate the world.

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill, and Lara Hamdan. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.

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Emily is the senior producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.
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