Supporting the deaf and hard of hearing to communicate during COVID-19

a woman is sitting at an old fashioned sewing machine sewing a mask

When the COVID-19 outbreak spread around the world, the women and people with disability Participatory Action Research (PAR) groups came together to discuss what the pandemic might mean for people in places like Sumbawa where sanitary conditions are poor and safe water systems are often lacking.


It was clear that they had a role to play in this crisis to ensure community responses were inclusive and did not leave anyone behind. Conversations went on throughout the days and extended late into the night over Whatsapp as the three PAR groups (made up of a women’s group, a group with people who are blind and sight impaired, and a group comprising people with physical disabilities and people who are deaf and hard of hearing) discussed what could and should be done.


Participatory Action Research groups have been formed under Plan International’s ‘WASH and Beyond –Transforming Lives in Eastern Indonesia’ project which is supported by the Australian Government through Water for Women. Participatory Action Research is a way of trying to understand how the world works and can involve qualitative and quantitative methods. You can learn more about Plan's PAR work and learning in their report 'Participatory Action Research in Practice - WASH for Women and People with Disabilities.'


Through PAR, a diverse group of people have found their voices and are now actively contributing to Plan Indonesia's WASH project. The challenge of COVID-19 was an opportunity to further their influence and contribution through PAR with some positive results that show the effectiveness of this approach, a WASH response is, after all, a COVID-19 response. PAR participants not only connected with members of their own PAR group but also across the PAR groups to consider what actions they could take as WASH champions within their communities and how they could make WASH as safe, accessible and inclusive as possible.


Many people in Sumbawa, Indonesia were desperately seeking personal protective equipment, and had been making the reusable fabric masks that the government had recommended to help slow the spread of the virus. Through their discussions, the PAR groups realised that a key part of the community had been excluded from this movement - the deaf and hard of hearing. When people wear face coverings those who rely on lip reading or sign language are often cut off from their primary source of communication – reading lips and facial expressions to understand meaning and intention.


A young girl models an innovative accessible face mask with a clear window so those deaf and hard of hearing can still lip readTo help change this the three Sumbawa PAR groups joined together to design and start making facemasks with a clear window that allows others to see and read lips as well as facial expressions. Not only does this ensure that people who are deaf and hard of hearing are not excluded, this work also provided important income generating opportunities for people like Aisha (pictured above) from the blind and seeing impaired PAR group. For her, this work has been a blessing to help supplement the income she lost from the flow on impacts of the COVID-19 shut down.


COVID-19 has been a difficult challenge for countries and people across the globe, but it has been heartening to see how the situation has also borne innovation and opportunities for people like Gabby (pictured in the mask) from the physical disability PAR group, to be WASH leaders in their community at a critical time and ensure that we leave no one behind.


There are more than one billion people living with some form of disability. 80 per cent of them live in developing countries, and, globally, persons with disabilities experience disproportionate poverty. COVID-19 has exacerbated pre-existing inequalities faced by persons with disabilities. These include disparities in stigma and discrimination, access to health-care services, the digital divide, social protection and the risk of violence and abandonment - especially of those living in long- term care and institutionalized settings.

Women and girls, indigenous peoples, migrants and refugees, older persons and other marginalised populations are further exposed to intersecting risks. The pandemic can be an impetus to find new solutions for building more sustainable, inclusive and equal societies. Many hard-earned gains are now at a crossroad. It is, thus, imperative that disability-inclusion be an integral part of crisis response, recovery and “building back better.”




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