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Coronavirus information resources available for deaf, hard-of-hearing communities

The challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic are made all the more difficult for people with hearing issues, but there are resources available to help.

HOUSTON — Not everyone has equal access to crucial information regarding the coronavirus pandemic, including details on how to get tested, how to find a job or how to get food.

"I just think there are so many things that the hearing community do need to be aware of,” said Ricky Harris, deaf and hard of hearing access specialist in Houston. “The No. 1 (thing) is that the communication access needs to be changed to fit our situation right now. Captioning is one of those, but there are some deaf people who are here from other countries that don't speak English.”  

  • Email Harris by clicking HERE

Harris is also contracted by the state with the Office of Deaf and Hard of Hearing Services under Texas Health and Human Services Commission.

For those in the deaf and hearing community who do speak English, American Sign Language interpreters have been helping get COVID-19 information. You’ve seen the sign language interpreters at many pandemic-related news conferences. 

“It's actually funny because a lot of people say, 'Why aren't you wearing a mask?'” said Terra Jackson, a sign language interpreter for Sorenson Communications in Houston.

Sorenson is a national company helping meet the interpreting needs of deaf and hard of hearing. 

“Most of the language does consist of facial expressions, body language and the way that we read that on people, it's not just words, "Jackson said. "So the facial expressions are extremely important to be able to deliver the language accurately and precisely.”

On its website, Texas Health and Human Services estimates 3.8 million deaf and hard-of-hearing live in the state; no census of this population has ever been done in Texas. HHS said the cost and the “monumental effort” has prohibited a specific count. 

“The Summary Health Statistics for U.S. Adults: National Health Interview Survey, 2005 (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Health Statistics) found that overall, 17 percent of adults 18 years of age and [older] experienced some hearing difficulty without a hearing aid,” the HHS website states. “Based on figures from the 2005 National Health Interview Survey and 2005 U.S. Census Bureau population figures of Texas, the total service population was estimated to be more than 3.8 million people.” 

Advocates for the deaf community say it’s paramount everyone gets the most up-to-date information.

“Hearing people, I see so often will (say), ‘Do you mind telling them later?’ this conversation will tell the deaf person later,” Jackson said. “It's just as important that they receive the information at the same time in a timely manner.”

“There are guidelines that are already listed for deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals who may show up to a place of business,” Harris said. “I would encourage anyone to try to make accommodations for them.”

*Editor's Note: Scroll to the bottom of this article for more information on laws and references relating to disability civil rights*

Harris said it’s good for the hearing community to know that the deaf use what is called a Video Relay Service to communicate that could sound like a spam call. 

“They think it's a telemarketer and they hang up,” Harris said. “Or was this a scam? We're like, 'No, I'm a deaf person. I want to talk to you and get information from you.’ And so they usually will identify this is a video relay service agency. There is a deaf person calling you. It's important that the person on the other end not hang up on us.”

Resources available for the deaf community

KHOU reached out to the Texas Workforce Commission, asking what resources it has for the deaf community. Here’s the information we received via email:

For several years, TWC has encouraged customers who are deaf or hearing-impaired to call TWC by using Relay Texas (dial 7-1-1). We include the Relay Texas general number 7-1-1 on many of our forms and publications, and Tele-Center customer service representatives are trained on how to assist deaf and hearing-impaired customers via Relay Texas. For more information, see: http://relaytexas.com/

The Unemployment Division is currently working with our Vocational Rehabilitation Division to investigate how we can expand access and assistance for hearing-impaired and deaf customers. We are also receiving input on how to better assist deaf and hearing-impaired customers from the Rehabilitation Council of Texas. We hope to offer expanded services as soon as possible and are working to make that happen.

Texas Workforce Solutions-Vocational Rehabilitation Services:

  • Anyone needing employment assistance, including those with disabilities, can be directed to their nearest Workforce Solutions office, whose employment specialists will coordinate referrals or services with VR. 
  • If a customer prefers to reach out to VR directly for assistance, they may use the directory found here.
  • VR has modified certain services that involve face-to-face contact to be virtual. All VR staff are available remotely to assist customers. Here is a one page message to our customers on this. A Message to Texas Workforce Solutions-Vocational Rehabilitation Services Customers 
  • To serve customers who are deaf or hearing impaired, VR Counselors are equipped with video phones that can be used to communicate with VR customers using sign language.
  • For example, VR service areas may staff members teleworking that have assistive technology in their home that allows them to communicate with individuals that have severe hearing loss. 
  • VR Staff is performing as a liaison in reaching out to the Workforce Centers and other community partners, so that individuals with hearing impairments can get the assistance they need. 
  • For providers, VR has implemented many temporary service exceptions to make it easier for VR providers to serve VR customers with any disability.

Relay services, including Relay Texas (RT), provide telephone interpreting services for person with hearing, vision or speech disabilities. Relay agents have equipment that enables them to hear the voice user as well as read the signals from the text telephone (TTY) user. The State of Texas provides access through Relay Texas using the following numbers: 

English: 1-800-735-2989 (TDD)

1-800-735-2988 (Voice)

Spanish: 1-800-662-4954

Laws and References

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 was the first disability civil rights law to be enacted in the United States. It prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in programs that receive federal financial assistance and set the stage for enactment of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Section 504 works together with the ADA to protect children and adults with disabilities from exclusion, and unequal treatment in employments, governments, and the public.

Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 and Americans with Disabilities Act Amendment Act of 2010

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) became law in 1990, and amended, Americans with Disabilities Act Amendment Act of 2010. The ADA is a civil rights law that prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in all areas of public life, including jobs, schools, transportation, and all public and private places that are open to the general public. 

The purpose of the law is to make sure that people with disabilities have the same rights and opportunities as everyone else. It guarantees equal opportunity for individuals with disabilities in public accommodations, employment, transportation, state and local government services, and telecommunications.