As of now, over 30% of Americans (over 100 million) are fully vaccinated against COVID-19. I’m one of them.
Finding a vaccine appointment was like winning a lottery! Seriously! Especially in early spring when there were more people wanting to get vaccines than vaccines available.
As a deaf person, I would like to share some flaws in accessibility considerations for deaf and hard of hearing people when administering vaccines to them.
First, when booking an appointment online, I saw a list of questions. One of them was about whether I had a need for language access. I clicked “yes” assuming that it would show a list of languages, including ASL, American Sign Language. However, more language access options didn’t show up.
I thought I might have a follow up via email asking me what language access I needed. While I got an email confirmation for the appointment, I did not get any follow ups with questions about my accessibility needs.
Since I booked an appointment the day before, I knew from my experience that it would be difficult to find a sign language interpreter at the last minute notice. I reached out to a director of a local county office for people with disabilities just in case.
When I spoke to my deaf friends who received the vaccine, they told me that the procedure was simple. Many of them communicated with the staff via writing on paper or typing on phone or tablet. Some were offered a tablet with VRI (video relay interpreting) that showed a remote sign language interpreter. Some places offer on-site sign language interpreters.
So I decided not to worry about a sign language interpreter and arrived to the appointment for my first dose. During most medical appointments, I usually communicate in writing if it’s a simple procedure.
First vaccine appointment
During my first vaccine appointment, I let people know at the entrance that I’m deaf and can communicate only in writing, especially with everyone in masks. I also asked if an ASL interpreter was available – just in case one might be there. I was told no. For safety reasons, I wouldn’t want anyone to pull down their masks.
I was assigned to a staff member who volunteered to take notes for me on post-its during my appointment. She wrote down everything that people at each site area told me.
All went well until we came up to a nurse who got irritated that I couldn’t understand her. I don’t know why the notetaker didn’t write down what the nurse said. I think it’s because she heard me using my voice in response to her writing. She probably assumed I might be able to lipread her. She even planned to pull down her mask. I told her no, please keep mask on and write instead. Even if I could see her lips, I would still prefer written communication as it would reduce misunderstandings.
The notetaker and the nurse talked to each other and then to me. I had no idea what they were talking about in masks. I felt like they had no mouths! I repeated to them several times my request to write down what they say. Finally the notetaker suggested the nurse to point to each question on the form. I realized that the nurse was trying to repeat questions to me verbally. I responded to her verbally. Then she administered the vaccine to me.
I was overwhelmed to the point that I almost forgot to pick up the vaccine card. I felt that my repeated requests to write were ignored. I felt disrespected as a deaf person. I was especially upset when the nurse got annoyed at me for being deaf and not having the X-ray vision lipread her through her mask.
After the appointment I reached out to the director of a local county office for people with disabilities and asked them for an ASL interpreter for my second appointment. Since my second appointment was to be scheduled 4 weeks later, there would be enough time to arrange an interpreter.
Also, the county’s website added a paragraph about how to request ASL access for vaccine appointments. I’m very pleased to see that. I had a very nice conversation with the director about the communication issue and it is good to see that he took action.
Second vaccine appointment
During my second vaccine appointment, I let people at the entrance know that I was deaf and requested an ASL interpreter.
The intepreter was waiting for me at the entrance and walked with me through the process.
At the sign up desk, a woman finger spelled to me “Hi!” It was really nice! I showed her an ID with my name and she checked off the box to indicate that I arrived for vaccination.
Next woman gave me a form to fill out and signed to me something like: “Hello! Welcome! How are you?” I was pleasantly surprised and asked her how she knew ASL. She said she took ASL classes in a local school.
After that I spoke to a few more people though the interpreter before speaking to a nurse who administered vaccines. He introduced himself and asked me how I felt after the first dose. Then he explained what to expect after the second dose and repeated questions in the form. Then he administered the vaccine. His assistant put down info on computer and on my vaccine card and gave me stickers. They both explained that there’s an app by NY state that I can sign up for 2 weeks later.
It was a big difference from my first appointment. I felt comfortable and respected.
Like with the first appointment, I stayed for about 15 minutes in case there are any adverse reactions. Thankfully, I didn’t have any during both appointments and went home.
Getting a vaccine may be a very simple procedure. I may manage fine with just written communication for simple procedures. However, with everyone in masks and trying to have as less contact as possible, it’s frustrating to remind people that I’m deaf and cannot lipread them. Especially when it comes to administering vaccines.
I’m fortunate to be fluent in ASL and can use an interpreter if needed, but many deaf and hard of hearing people don’t know sign language. They use mostly spoken languages and rely on written access. ASL access may not work for them if they are denied written communication or cannot lipread people in masks.
I have suggestions on how to improve access for deaf people at all places that administer vaccines:
- Get training on how to communicate with deaf and hard of hearing people.
- Offer an option in online forms to disclose deafness and to indicate communication access needs.
- Put down information on their website about how they can communicate with deaf people: wearing clear masks, writing on paper, typing on phone/tablet, providing an ASL interpeter, offering a tablet with VRI, etc.
Again, it may be a very simple procedure. However, when you make a deaf person feel comfortable and respected during their vaccine appointment by honoring their communication needs, it means a world to them.