“Because of the masks, it` is impossible to understand when someone is addressing you” – sign language interpreter speaks about the life of people with hearing impairment during the quarantine

Uliana Frankovska explains how the coronavirus quarantine has changed the lives of people with hearing impairment.

The article was published on nv.ua on 3 December 2020.

During quarantine Ukrainians are advised, if possible, to consult with a family doctor by phone or online and switch to remote forms of communication. People with hearing impairments are now experiencing serious difficulties, says Uliana Frankovska, a sign language translator and social work specialist.

Ahead of the Human Rights Day celebrated on 10 December, NV and the UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine are publishing a series of stories about how the pandemic has disproportionately affected people in vulnerable situations and why it is important to put human rights at the center of the COVID-19 response.

We are meeting with Uliana Frankovska in Kharkiv, in the office of Creavita, a civil-society organization of people with disabilities where my interlocutor has been working since 2012.

Frankovska grew up in a family of deaf people, so she knows how to communicate with them from childhood. She has been working as a sign language translator since she was 19, so for over 30 years now. First she translated for a small group of deaf people at the Kharkiv Turbine Plant, then got a job at the Ukrainian Society of the Deaf People [UTOG - Ukrainian Association of the Deaf], where she was an instructor, then head of a department, and then director of a community centre.

Eight years ago she joined Creavita and  began working with people with disabilities, not only with hearing impairment. For example, today she oversees the performance of an inclusive taxi service in Kharkiv that drives people who are in wheelchairs, using specially adapted vehicles.

In an interview to NV media Uliana Frankovska explains how the coronavirus quarantine has changed the lives of people with hearing impairment, and talks about useful initiatives Kharkiv is introducing to facilitate communication with deaf people or people who are hearing impaired.

Calling ambulance and a doctor is a big challenge

“In March, when the lockdown began in Ukraine, I was scared. I was horrified that our health care system was not ready to work with a large flow of people who could not talk to a doctor,” Uliana recalls.

Persons with disabilities faced information and communication barriers even before the pandemic, including lack of accessible information such as Braille or simplified language, lack of sign language translation, and  lack of healthcare workers with proper training to communicate with people with intellectual disabilities. The situation became even more complicated with the beginning of the pandemic.

The first problem that Uliana faced when the lockdown began was caused by the masks that everyone began to wear as a means of personal protection against the spread of COVID-19. The fact is, Frankovska explains, that people with hearing impairments use not only sign language to communicate. They can also read lips, that is, they recognize speech through articulation too. Because of the masks such people can no longer understand when someone addresses them because they do not see the lips of the interlocutor.

“There was a situation, for example, when a security guard in a supermarket beat a hearing-impaired man because he thought he was simply ignoring his address and remarks. In fact, the man simply did not hear that he was being addressed. And he didn’t see it because of the mask,” Uliana recalls.

In the Creavita office Uliana Frankovska demonstrates gestures used by people with hearing impairments as they talk to each other.

Masks with a transparent screen – shields - or regular masks with a similar transparent insert would be a solution. However, someone has to organize the purchase of such masks and their provision to deaf people and those with hearing difficulties. This problem has not yet been resolved.

The second serious problem that deaf people face during the quarantine period is difficulties with calling an ambulance, as well as with remote consultation with a family doctor, Frankovska explains. Her family was in exactly the same situation.

“My brother and father live in Donetsk region, in Kramatorsk. I imagined with horror how they would experience all this: they cannot call anywhere, they also cannot call an ambulance, and the family doctor will not be able to monitor their health condition remotely,” she shares.

According to the analysis of the UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine, access to health care including physical access to facilities, habilitation and rehabilitation, equipment and services, education, social protection, work and employment has become even more limited for people with disabilities in general since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. The crisis caused by COVID-19 has also revealed a significant gap between the available social services in the community and the real needs of people with disabilities. In addition, quarantine has exacerbated the isolation and exclusion of people with disabilities in Ukraine.

Smartphone as a means of technical rehabilitation

Digital literacy training will help changing the situation in this case as people with hearing impairments will be able to use smartphones to communicate remotely with those around them. The deaf people, for example, often use video calls to communicate with each other with gestures.

In this case, sign language interpreters will help solve the problem of communication with the family doctor as well. They can become intermediaries between a deaf person and a physician who does not know sign language. Such options are already being implemented in municipal healthcare institutions in Kharkiv.

People with hearing impairments communicate via video.

Every hospital and outpatient clinic in the city is already equipped with special tablets that are connected to remote services with a sign language interpreter. Such a tablet is usually kept at reception. When a patient with hearing impairment comes to see a family doctor, the nurse must go to the reception for this gadget. In practice, Frankovska admits, the human factor plays an important role:

"The thing is, not every doctor or nurse wants to go down to the front desk for this tablet."

An alternative way is communication through regular writing on paper, by hand. But Frankovska says this option not very convenient and not too fast.

Another innovation is a special widget on the websites of Kharkiv polyclinics. There is a special crossed-out ear icon in the lower right corner. If you are hearing impaired, all you need to do is click on this widget and thus bring up a sign language interpreter.

Uliana Frankovska shows how it works in practice. She goes to the website of a city outpatient hospital on office PC. There she clicks an icon at the bottom where a person shows several numbers with gestures, something like an authorization code. Uliana enters these numbers, confirms the entrance, and after a few minutes a sign language interpreter goes online with her.

“We are testing with journalists how this option works,” explains Frankovska to a sign language interpreter using gestures. She smiles back. Thus, a translator can be asked to make an appointment, for example, to a dentist or other specialized doctor, call the registry of the polyclinic you need and do everything for you.

But my interlocutor repeats that all this is available only to those people who have access to the Internet and also know how to use gadgets.

“My dad, for example, does not know how to use messengers like Viber, he is an old man. Yes, he has a tablet where all he has learned is a green button, WhatsApp, and if you click there, me or my brother will show up. And that's all he can do,” Frankovska gives an example.

Many people still use push-button telephones, especially when it comes to older people, retirees. Therefore, the problem of communication for them is very acute especially now, during the quarantine.

The government helps some to solve the issue with smartphones that are considered a technical means of rehabilitation for people with hearing impairment just like a wheelchair for people with musculoskeletal disorders or a cane for the blind people. Once every five years a person with hearing impairment can independently purchase a smartphone, after which the state will reimburse a certain amount. At the moment it is 3,250 UAH. That is, you can buy a smartphone either for this amount or more expensive, and get compensation.

Another problem is to teach people to use these gadgets, explains Uliana Frankovska: “Many already understand that it is in their interests, and are trying to somehow master all these things”.

People with hearing impairments use not only gestures for communication, but also articulation.

In this regard, Creavita designed a project that will teach Kharkiv residents the basics of digital literacy. Initially, the project was expected to receive funding from the city budget. But it did not happen and finances will come from private funds. The interlocutor says the funding source already exists.

“Here, in Kharkiv, I have prepared instructions with phone numbers where a doctor can call to find a sign language interpreter. A sign language interpreter, in turn, can call a hearing-impaired person and communicate via videoconference if the person has a smartphone, of course,” says Frankovska.

She also shows special leaflets for deaf people to answer basic questions about the coronavirus, for example, whether there was contact with a sick person. Such leaflets were invented back in March in order to simplify communication with the same doctors. Previously, similar leaflets were developed for police officers who stop hearing-impaired drivers.

The leaflet, which Frankovska shows, depicts different road signs. A police officer can point at one of them to explain the reason for the stop to the hearing-impaired driver. Also the leaflets show phone numbers that you can call to connect to sign language interpreter.

Guides to the world of the deaf people

Another area that Frankovska and her colleagues are currently working on is the sign language interpreters who will help people with hearing impairments in various areas of their lives.

For example, inclusive tourism, which is about the development of tourist routes in Kharkiv equally accessible for people with limited mobility and for people with hearing and vision impairments. As part of this project, it is planned to train people with hearing impairments so that they can work as guides for tourists with same condition.

Uliana Frankovska communicates with a man with hearing impairments at the Center for Administrative Services in one of the districts of Kharkiv

Another area is sign language interpreters for central and city authorities, just like they work in the Kyiv city state administration.

“I really like the way the Kyiv City State Administration works, where every briefing by [Kyiv Mayor Vitaly] Klitschko is accompanied by sign language interpretation. The same is in the Ministry of Health. Unfortunately, authorities in our Kharkiv have not done this yet,” Frankovska says. She shows videos on her Facebook, which she recorded in the spring during the lockdown. They feature a woman, who listens to briefings, reads the latest news about the quarantine, and then explains in sign language to the deaf audience what was happening in Ukraine and in Kharkiv in particular.

The draft on the emergence of inclusive translators was put to a vote so that it could receive a city participatory budget. The public budget, or the participatory budget, is a part of the city budget that Kharkiv residents can use to solve any utilities problems or to implement any idea. Any Kharkiv citizen can vote either online or through the Administrative Services Center, with a passport and code.

UN human rights experts call on the authorities to continue to consult closely with persons with disabilities and their representative organizations during the COVID-19 pandemic and actively involve them in the decision-making process regarding the response measures that affect them.

Together with Frankovska, we go to the Center for the Provision of Administrative Services (CPAS) in the Shevchenko district of Kharkiv. She has an appointment with a group of people with hearing impairments at 4pm. Frankovska will help them to vote - get a ticket for the electronic queue, talk to the center operator and cast their vote.

“This is how I try to help those who do not know how to use the Internet and cannot vote online. I come to the CPAS in different districts of Kharkov - yesterday there was one, today another - and I help to communicate with the center operator. I translate, I also explain the essence of the project”, Frankovska says.

She gives free antiseptic and a disposable protective mask to everyone who comes to vote. She exchanges a few words, asks about the health of her interlocutors. Today there are mainly people of mature age – male and female pensioners.

“I voted for the translators, our assistants in the world of the deaf people. It is important that they are there. They will get jobs and a chance to communicate with us, and for us it will be a solution to any issue. We really need them, but now there are not many of them,” says one of those who voted today, Evhenia Marchenko.

Uliana Frankovska translates NV's questions for Yevhenia Marchenko, a woman with hearing impairment

Her hearing is impaired. She can speak but can perceive the words of the interlocutor only with the help of sign language and by tracking the articulation. Frankovska helps to talk to her.

“I took computer courses for three months to master [digital literacy]. I was the only one there with hearing impairment, it was hard for me. But I have mastered it,” Marchenko adds.

Frankovska says that each of us can do something to improve communication with the deaf people and hearing impaired. You can learn a number of basic gestures such as “Hello,” “Bye,” “Sorry,” “Need help,” and more. Or, if possible, learn dactyl, a sign ABC used in communication. And another request is to lower the mask if the situation allows and the interlocutor does not understand you.

“I do not call for removing masks during the quarantine. But there are situations when they can be lowered if asked to chat . For example, if this is a bank employee who sits at the cash register or in some closed space and can technically lower the mask to say everything necessary,” the woman explains.

She asks everyone who makes any products of public interest to adapt them for the hearing impaired if possible. This applies, for example, to the media that produce TV stories or videos for the Internet - they should be accompanied with subtitles or sign language translation. That refers also to central and municipal authorities, as mentioned above.

“Be more attentive to people,” Frankovska asks. “Sometimes if a person does not respond to you, this does not mean that he has deliberately ignored you. Perhaps he simply does not hear or does not understand.”

UN entities involved in this initiative
Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights