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Deaf and hard of hearing 'treated like second-class citizens' in pandemic

Fuseworks Media
Fuseworks Media

Almost one million New Zealanders are being treated like second-class citizens whose needs are marginalised during COVID, according to the National Foundation for Deaf and Hard of Hearing.

Twenty months after the pandemic first forced the country into lockdown and made mask-wearing the norm, the Deaf and hard of hearing community is being denied equitable communication channels that others have, and this an appalling shortcoming in the health system, Natasha Gallardo, the chief executive of the National Foundation for Deaf and Hard of Hearing says.

"A year ago we tackled the Government over its discrimination against the 880,000 people in New Zealand that live with hearing loss. Ironically promises made to address this appear to be nothing more than lip service.

"Accessibility hasn’t improved. Our community has to navigate COVID testing, vaccinations, socially-distanced shopping and self-isolation with the added challenge of not always being able to hear or understand what is being said because masks are a barrier. This exaggerates anxiety and threatens mental wellbeing," Gallardo, who wears hearing aids and also relies on being able to lip read, says.

The Foundation last year lobbied government ministers and the Ministry of Health to ensure inclusion of the Deaf and hard of hearing communities in its approach to combat COVID community transmission.

It implored Prime Minister Rt Hon Jacinda Ardern, Minister for Disability Issues, Hon Carmel Sepuloni, Minister for Broadcasting, Hon Kris Faafoi and Director-General of Health, Dr Ashley Bloomfield to consider the needs of those who are Deaf or hard of hearing as a necessity.

NFDHH says the continued failure to have inclusive systems in place means there is a reluctance for those who are Deaf or hard of hearing to get tested, as they may not understand conversations or instructions, and it has the potential to deter them from getting vaccinated too.

"It’s not surprising that less than a quarter of the population hasn’t been fully vaccinated when the process is so challenging for a significant number of people with a disability," Gallardo says.

"We know face masks are imperative to help combat the spread of the virus, however we need other tools to assist our community - including NZ Sign Language interpreters at large testing and vaccination sites, clear masks as part of PPE and closed captions on all news channels, not just TVNZ." NFDHH staff report an increase in the number of people who are anxious and feeling more isolated, particularly with yesterday’s extension of Alert Level 4.

The charity has established a team to make care calls and care emails to help support those feeling vulnerable and in need of help.

NFDHH also has a downloadable "buddy card" that alerts people to the person’s hearing loss, and can provide the file to be printed and made available at places where the public will be - such as COVID testing stations and supermarkets, to assist with essential workers understanding the needs of those with hearing loss.

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