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Dr. Carrie Lou Garberoglio gave a keynote address at the TDI 24th Biennial Conference on July 27. All the presentations are available online on their YouTube channel. The conference, with the theme “Reset and Reconnect,” reflects the seismic change many had to make by embracing new ways of participating in educational, medical, or employment activities in a virtual space. This change has created a wake-up call to ensure full virtual access for deaf students, families, and workers.

COVID-19 drastically changed how people work, learn, and interact with each other as so much of our life has shifted online. Dr. Garberoglio pointed out that the shift to online life is not entirely new, and has been a gradual process over time, particularly for deaf people. During her keynote, she also shared vital information about the new virtual world we find ourselves in due to the pandemic and its impact on deaf people.

Deaf People Often Lead the Way in Technology Advancements

Deaf people have historically been early adopters of technology, such as telecommunication devices (TTYs), texting, and video calling. They have always capitalized on using the latest technological innovations to communicate and share information. After all, deaf people may have been the first people to use text abbreviations while using TTYs like BRB for “be right back” or GA for “go ahead”. These abbreviations are now a part of how the world communicates in text.

Thus, it is not surprising that many deaf college students choose to take their classes online — even before the pandemic. In 2016, 45% of deaf college students had taken at least one course online and 17% did their entire program online, at higher rates than hearing students. NDC research shows that deaf undergraduate students are older than their hearing peers and more likely to have children. These students may need more flexibility in when and where they pursue continued education and training.

We know that deaf people can’t just up and move anywhere without thinking about a myriad of factors including: interpreter availability, employer awareness, access to deaf community resources, social opportunities, and educational options for their children, if deaf. Those decisions are complicated — and often this means deaf people have fewer options. Online spaces can give deaf people more options, more flexibility, and greater autonomy to make decisions that are the best fit for their lives.

Increasing Internet Access for Deaf People

Discussing the future of online life for deaf people must also consider who has access to these virtual spaces, and how. An analysis of publicly available data from the American Community Survey in 2019 shows that twice as many deaf people than hearing people did not have access to the internet, or equipment to access the internet.

  • 11.7% of deaf people between the ages of 1-64 did not have a smartphone, compared to 5% of hearing people.

  • 25.6% of deaf people between the ages of 1-64 did not have a laptop or desktop, compared to 16.4% of hearing people.

  • 11.1% of deaf people between the ages of 1-64 did not have access to the internet at home, compared to 5.5% of hearing people.

  • Among deaf people who had access to the internet, 20.9% did not have high speed internet, compared to 16.3% of hearing people.

Ensuring that deaf people have access to the internet in this increasingly virtual world is of crucial importance. State agencies across the country are working on this challenge by partnering with companies to provide laptops, or using surplus funds when COVID-19 restricted travel to purchase equipment for deaf clients in their area. Some colleges and universities can loan equipment and Wi-Fi hot spots to deaf students, and vocational rehabilitation agencies may have funding available to support equipment needs.

The Federal Communications Commission has an Emergency Broadband Benefit Program that provides support for internet access to eligible households. Identifying strategies and opportunities to increase access to the internet needs to be part of the services that are offered to deaf people going forward.

The Challenges of Virtual Learning

COVID-19 has only magnified pre-existing challenges in access to virtual spaces. At NDC, our help team sees questions from the field every day and provides resources and strategies to help stakeholders address challenges. In the first three months of the pandemic, the number of questions received by our help team more than doubled. Many of these questions were related to technology and online access.

These questions were related to automatic speech recognition (ASR), confidentiality, intellectual property, technology policies and procedures, video conferencing, access for deafblind students, using VRS in virtual classrooms, and more. We share frequently asked questions on our website, and provide solutions.

However, over the last year, the questions that our help team received have been increasingly more complex and nuanced. This shows that colleges and training programs are thinking more deeply about access — and understanding that access is not ‘one-size-fits-all.” This acknowledges that we can’t simply “move things online” but must find innovative solutions and think outside the box.

Finding Deaf-Centered Solutions

To find these solutions, deaf people must be part of conversations about access and the future of online spaces. As people who are increasingly living their lives online, the experiences of deaf people can help ensure that we maximize the potential of virtual learning, teaching, working, and connecting with each other.

It is also important to remember that not everyone can, or wants to, move their life online. For some deaf people, online information and communication are not optimal. For example, real-time captions for live virtual events are accessible for some, but not for others. All deaf people have different experiences and communication needs — everyone needs to be part of conversations about online access.

Trust that deaf people have expertise and know what they need, whether in person or online. Always work to provide flexibility and options that maximize what is available with remote services and online opportunities.

NDC is Here to Help

To learn more about the range of accommodation options for deaf students, visit our Accommodations 101, Interpreting, and Speech-to-Text Services pages.

In addition, NDC offers free online professional development courses to increase your knowledge about accommodations used in postsecondary settings. The Foundations of Effective Accommodations course is a great place to start. This course will help strengthen an understanding of effective communication in postsecondary settings, and how to create equitable access and participation for deaf people you work with. All our online classes are completely self-paced, allowing you to complete them according to your schedule.

As always, our help team is available to respond to your questions and concerns.