COVID-19 has made life more isolated for the deaf community 

The past couple of months have been a hard adjustment for Rytch Newmiller, a volunteer with the Calgary Association of the Deaf.

Volunteers make sign-language interpretations, visit shut-ins to relieve the isolation

Volunteers like interpretor Wanda Warkentin have worked to create their own create their own sign-language communications for the deaf community during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Vincent Bonnay/CBC)

The past couple of months have been a hard adjustment for Rytch Newmiller, a volunteer with the Calgary Association of the Deaf.

"We're used to getting together and communicating in person and seeing sign language communication with each other actually in person," he said through an interpreter. "So now, with the social distancing, with having to stay home, it's really quite challenging."

Newmiller has been spearheading major support initiatives for the deaf community during the COVID-19 pandemic.

One example is putting pressure on the government to offer an interpreter during televised updates from Alberta's chief medical officer of health, Dr. Deena Hinshaw. 

The first Alberta pandemic update was in late January — but it took until mid-March for an interpreter to make an appearance at her side.

The team is focused on making communciation more accessible.

Rytch Newmiller, a volunteer with the Calgary association of the deaf, has been recognized for his work with the deaf community during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Vincent Bonnay/CBC)

"There are so many vlogs, things on the internet, interviews, phones, movies that have no information at all that deaf people can access," Newmiller said.

He said the deaf community often feels forgotten and has suffered further isolation since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic.

Newmiller and a team of 19 volunteers have tried to fill gaps in the system to help members access procedures for financial aid, administrative as well as psychological support, and help for families.

During the months without an on-screen translator, the association itself broadcast its own sign language updates.

Wanda Warkentin is a deaf interpreter who often works with the City of Calgary. She deplores the fact that so many barriers are still erected despite some improvement.

"This morning [Friday] Premier Jason Kenney made an announcement about the reopening of businesses in Calgary without an interpreter," she said. "So people watch and wait for the information. I know deaf business owners who need to know if they can open or not."

Masks an added challenge

Wartenkin is worried about the future, especially the new standards for wearing a face mask.

"On a daily basis, we depend on the perception of facial expressions to obtain linguistic information," she said, adding that there is grammar in the American sign language.

With masks, deaf people will lose at least half of the facial expressions on which they depend.

Volunteer Wanda Warkentin provides a socially distanced visit, with sign language, to an isolated member of the deaf community. (Vincent Bonnay/CBC)

Wartenkin said the pandemic is even harder for deaf and blind people, or those whose vision impairments involve reading sign language by touching the hands or arms of the interpreters. Gloves and reinforced sanitary measures are necessary but very difficult. 

Volunteers are making physically distanced visits to elders and people with mobility issues. Not just as a way to communicate but a much-needed contact with another person.

Newmiller's involvement was recognized by the province this week. He is a winner of the Northern Lights program, which rewards Albertans who are making a difference.

With files from Vincent Bonnay and Pamela Fieber


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