The events of the past year – from the pandemic to civil rights protests to instances of political violence – have, understandably and for a variety of interwoven reasons, caused many in the public safety sector to rethink the way communication gets done. Conveying information to and from the public has always been an important challenge with constant room to improve. But as we’ve placed more focus on understanding and respecting the unique populations we all serve, and added new physical barriers to the mix (masks, increased personal distance, etc.), it seems more urgent than ever to intentionally update our habits and practices for success going forward.

We’ve hit on elements of this theme before – adapting operations for responder mental health, reconsidering our assumptions about preparing to care for senior citizens – but this time, the team, led by Kathy, got a chance to talk with Dr. Leslie Puzio and Mr. David Martin about how we can do a better job adapting our communications to serve a specific, often overlooked audience: Deaf and/or hard of hearing individuals. Dr. Puzio is the Program Manager for FCC’s American Sign Language (ASL) program, and Mr. Martin’s an Assistant Professor who teaches in the program. Both of them are actively engaged in educating about and advocating for the Deaf and/or hard of hearing community, locally and at large, so of course – us being us – you’ll see their expertise start to feature in our academic and training coursework soon. But for right now, they’ve helped us put together some simple advice on making public safety interactions more friendly to members of our Deaf communities…especially as we navigate various levels of mask-wearing in the future.

1. Recognize the Basic Constraints; Be Understanding

Keep in mind that, especially this far into a long-term series of public health and other emergencies, the list of potential stressors for any interaction – but especially with Deaf and/or hard of hearing individuals – is pretty long, and continues to grow. At the basic level, sheer fatigue, whether just from being in response mode so long or simply “pandemic fatigue” itself, is often putting nerves on edge. Adding safety concerns (distance, potential infection, etc.) to all interactions can add even more tension. And with all this placed in the context of occasionally damaged public trust in some public safety institutions, an individual’s level of comfort in a given interaction is probably less than it would be otherwise. We’re all going through a lot, and entering an interaction prepared to be more patient and accommodating than usual can help ensure things go smoothly.

In interacting with our Deaf communities, the need to expand our understanding is even greater. Most basically, this can come from understanding the limits of our assumptions about how to recognize a Deaf and/or hard of hearing individual. Our world has a growing number of individuals with hearing loss – the elderly, our veteran populations, our Deaf communities, to name a few. Entering a situation with assumptions about “what Deaf or hearing loss looks like” can lead us to miss those who might not fit those assumptions, and seriously damage our ability to serve them well. Taking an extra moment of patience to confirm the needs of those we interact with can help us avoid that trap.

2. Masks are Important; Masks Bring a Challenge

Masks and other, more extensive personal protective equipment (PPE) are essential tools for fighting a pandemic, especially when the disease spreads, like COVID-19, primarily through respiratory transmission. By now most of have gotten used to wearing them, built new habits, even bought masks featuring our favorite sports team…and we’ll probably continue to do so into the future. While specific restrictions are being relaxed due to lessening community spread and growing vaccination rates, masks will remain an important mitigation tool, whether for protecting those not yet vaccinated, or just helping to stop what spread is left. And even after the pandemic officially ends, it may still be more likely to see them on individuals in daily life: for many they might make public transit feel more sanitary, and for others the benefit of crushing the annual flu season might seem worth keeping them around.

But this changing norm doesn’t come without consequences, for our Deaf communities in particular. Masks are good for disease protection, but often a barrier to communication. They can make it more difficult to hear and understand verbal speech – an amplified challenge if one is already hard of hearing – but more pressingly, in covering the face, they can undercut other communication options. ASL requires grammar on the face and mouth, and these are often prohibited if one’s face is covered. The same goes for those individuals who rely on lips to assist with understanding – if they can’t be seen, that tool is lost.

Both personal safety and effective communication are essential; it’s the responsibility of the public safety world to hold these two factors in balance and bridge that gap. So on the one hand, be sure to maintain mask discipline: don’t touch or lift it when speaking, minimize readjustments if you can, ensure it stays tightly fitted, stay physically distanced. But on the other, recognize that it’s going to cause some challenges, and prepare for that. Take your time, understand that comprehending what you say may not be as quick as you expect, make every effort to show that the barrier to communications is only a matter of equipment, and you’re willing to work around it to get everyone safely on the same page. If you’re in a position to do so and haven’t already, consider acquiring clear masks for first responders as/if they become available to you.

3. Be Patient; Be Respectful

It (hopefully) goes without saying, but as members of public safety enterprises, our goal should be to keep our community members safe, prepared, and protected in a way that is respectful, understanding, and meets them where they are. Ensuring our communications are similarly respectful and adapted to the needs of those we serve is a key part of that – and also really important to getting anything done. In serving the Deaf and/or hard of hearing individuals in our communities, the principle is the same, but our understanding of just how to adjust respectfully to meet their communication needs is often lacking.

Some basics: Keep in mind that lipreading skills vary from person to person. Most Deaf people would guess what you’re saying based on the context of the conversation and predicting what you would say. But also keep in mind that 70% of speech is nasal (for example, making the sounds of letters like M, N, P, B, D), so predictions won’t always be perfect. It’s very unlikely for a Deaf person to be able to distinguish whether you’re saying “Mom,” “Pop,” or “Bob,” if they don’t have any context. In an emergency situation, gaining and maintaining that context can be extra challenging – do try to account for that as best you can, and be patient.

Don’t try to resolve the issue by pronouncing words more slowly, or exaggerating your mouth movements. Not only is it not likely to help much, it can also be actively embarrassing to the Deaf individual, especially if the communication is happening in a class, or in public. 

But do try to avoid being backlit – if you’re speaking and there’s a bright light behind you (sun, floodlights, etc.), move out of the way of its direct path. No one likes staring into the sun to watch someone talk; it’s even less helpful for Deaf and/or hard of hearing individuals, who are much less able to turn away and still be able to understand what you’re saying.

4. Assess and Ask

Early in your interactions with a Deaf and/or hard of hearing individual, assess for understanding – if they’re not able to parse what you’re saying, you want to identify that and rectify it early. It’s respectful, but also practical: you want the time you spend communicating to be as effective as possible. Always ask the Deaf individual what mode of communication they prefer. In many cases, that’ll be asking for a pen & paper, or even using a phone to type out the words. Give yourself permission to shift your communications as needed.

And likewise, always be prepared and willing to ask for help. This could be anything from calling over the member of your crew who’s wearing a clear mask, to finding a team member with more easily understandable vocal patterns and facial expressions, to calling in a professional ASL interpreter. Interpreting exists for a reason – interpreters are there to ensure effective communication for all individuals in a conversation, hearing and Deaf alike. Don’t feel any hesitation in getting whatever assistance you find out that you need: the mission is respectful and effective communication, and you’re just calling in the right tools for the job.

We’ll leave you with that last bit – whether you’re communicating with Deaf and/or hard of hearing individuals specifically, with the public generally, or even with those in your personal life, taking the time and effort to get everyone the understanding they need is rarely a bad plan.

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