Some things haven’t changed for Desiree Delbert since the start of COVID-19. A heavy reliance on video chat may have been a novelty for many people starting to work at home because of the pandemic, but for Delbert, who was born deaf, visual technology has long been a way of staying connected.
Losing the option to communicate in person, however, did pose a new difficulty to Delbert’s work as an American Sign Language teacher at Asheville’s Franklin School of Innovation. Normally, she runs her classroom with lots of student-to-student conversation and feedback — an experience that proved hard to replicate online.
“We lost the interaction part, where students can use their developed ASL skills to converse with each other,” Delbert explains. “I had to create signing videos that required quite a bit of bandwidth, which could slow down students’ internet speeds.”
The teacher’s own learning has also been challenged. Delbert is earning a master’s degree in sign language education from Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., the nation’s only university for the deaf and hard of hearing. While fall and spring classes normally meet online, the program’s on-campus summer semester also went virtual due to COVID-19.
“It was a devastating blow to our 2020 MASLED cohort because that’s the best part of the entire program — meeting our classmates, professors, being on campus in actual classes and exploring what D.C. has to offer for five weeks,” Delbert says. “All I can say is we are making the best out of this, staying positive and united with a common goal.”
For her and others in the deaf community, Delbert adds, the widespread use of face masks has layered more anxiety on top of an already stressful situation. Hidden mouths prevent her from lip reading and seeing facial expressions, key cues for understanding those who don’t use ASL.
“When people attempt to speak to me, I would gesture that I cannot hear and to pull down their masks to communicate with me,” she says of her recent experiences in stores and other public places. “Half of those people would kindly comply, but the other half would give me looks and continue speaking with the masks on, which oftentimes leads to frustrations and miscommunication for both of us.”
This article is part of COVID Conversations, a series of short features based on interviews with members of our community during the coronavirus pandemic in Western North Carolina. If you or someone you know has a unique story you think should be featured in a future issue of Xpress, please let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org.