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COVID-19 and the DeafBlind Community:

By: Jennifer Pearsall

March 01 2021


In 1979, N.W. Ayer & Son, an advertising company, wrote one of the most memorable and iconic slogans in advertising history: "Reach out and touch someone" (Massey, 1997). This slogan was assigned to AT&T in an effort to soften its image and encourage the consumers to choose this company for communication with those near and far. Although the use of ‘touch' in this slogan does not mean physical touch, it strongly points to the human need for feeling connected through open lines of communication.


The need to feel connected is no different for someone who is DeafBlind. A DeafBind individual is one who has a "combination of hearing and visual loss that severely impedes communication, education, employment, and independent living" (National Library Service, 2020).These individuals, who have varying degrees of loss, often use Tactile Sign Language, Pro-Tactile Sign Language, or Tracking as a means of communication. Tactile Sign Language, often used by individuals who have learned American Sign Language growing up, incorporates the use of touch to receptively understand the message. This is done with "hand-over-hand signing" (also called hand-under-hand) (Hom, 2021). The DeafBlind individual lightly lays their hands over the hands of the signer to feel the movement, location, and handshapes of the message given in sign language. They independently sign back in reply. Pro-Tactile Sign Language is much like Tactile Sign Language but adds the element of tapping on the signer's legs, hands, arms or shoulders for added emphasis or expression. If an individual has some residual sight, the chosen method of communication maybe Tracking. This involves holding the signer's wrists to follow movement so the DeafBlind individual can locate "the signing within their field of vision" (Hom, 2021).


The population of DeafBlind in the United States has been estimated to be 1.2 million individuals, with a 2016 report from the National Center on DeafBlind stating "there are a total of 9,635 children and youth counted as DeafBlind" (Arizona Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing) within this statistic. Some DeafBlind people are clients of Support Service Providers (SSP), individuals who come to their home to help with daily activities such as dealing with mail, accompanying or guiding for a walk, or small errands nearby a few times a week. This is one way to keep the clients safe and connected to the world. Many also use translators or interpreters, professionally trained individuals who take a language from one person and change it into another language for the client. In most situations, in the U.S., the translator changes English into one of the communication methods aforementioned: Tactile Sign Language, Pro-Tactile Sign Language, or Tracking. Isolation and fear are real for many DeafBlind individuals since those who know how to communicate effectively are few and far between. The onset of the SARS-CoV-2, aka COVID-19, made this fear of isolation a reality. SSPs are an integral and important part of many DeafBlind lives providing that needed human touch and connection to the world. 


In December of 2019 China announced it had been affected with SARS-CoV-2. This deadly upper respiratory disease quickly spread from country to country and in February of 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO), named the virus COVID-19. It was discovered the virus was easily transmitted through droplets caused by sneezes and coughs or simple breaths. Further, COVID-19's ability to live on surface areas means a simple, unknowing touch on an affected area has the potential to spread to the deadly disease to many. Thousands of new cases were reported daily as the pandemic spread. The Centers for Disease Control mandated isolation for everyone. Businesses of all kinds shut down or closed, individuals were strongly encouraged to stay home, and the wearing of masks in public places and social distancing of six feet between individuals at any one time became the new norm (PsychCentral, 2020). Fear and disbelief swept over the world as these actions took place in an effort to slow or remove the threat while scientists searched for a cure.

Communication via internet, email, social networks and video conferencing rapidly grew in an effort to stay ‘in touch' and informed. This was no solution for the DeafBlind community who depend on touch to communicate and thrive. Inequity of access to news and information for these individuals, always a challenge, and only grew with the pandemic.


The threat of isolation was real as stated by these DeafBlind individuals:

Haben Girma is the first DeafBlind individual to graduate from Harvard Law School. She advocates for the DeafBlind, and has made the Forbes 30 Under 30 list among other worthy achievements. She states, "hospitals may not allow interpreters who can use tactile sign language to accompany deaf-blind patients--both for the interpreters' safety and because of limited protective gear. If I was suffering from coronavirus, I would not have the strength to advocate for myself. The doctor might look at my health record and say my life is not worth saving. So many doctors undervalue our lives." (Wright, 2020)

Angela Theriault is the Director of the Seattle DeafBlind Center and can relate to this all too well.  She is Deaf and nearly fully blind herself and says, "Avoiding touch is impossible for someone who is DeafBlind, and that means we are in a higher risk group. And, those working with us are also in a higher risk group." She goes on to say, "We're unable to stay six feet apart. But, without touch for someone who is fully Blind, there would be absolutely no communication" (McNichols, 2020).

Woody Livingston describes his vision as looking through a snowstorm. He also uses a cochlear implant to help him hear. He states his SSP provided "only three hours this month, and no hours last month or the month before" (Brown, 2020) due to the pandemic.


As the world seemingly shut down nearly over night to minimize the threat of the disease so did support for the DeafBlind. The governor of Maryland, Larry Hogan, issued and executive order which declared service providers and sign language interpreters to be considered essential workers. Unfortunately, other states have not followed this example leaving DeafBlind individuals often times lonely and scared (Wright, 2020).

By January of 2021 the number of persons worldwide who had contracted the coronavirus was over 96.2 million with 2.05 million deaths. In this same month and year, the German pharmaceutical company, BioNTech, announced they were "confident its vaccine would develop an immune response against" the coronavirus and its variants. (Meredith, 2021).There was a huge sigh of relief across the globe as the reality of going back to ‘normal' was finally in sight. But, for the DeafBlind community this chance of normalcy cannot come fast enough. They would be able to once again ‘reach out and touch someone', gaining the human interaction craved and needed without fear just as they had before the outbreak of COVID 19 and social distancing.



ACDHH, FAQ: How many Deaf Blind are in the United States? Arizona Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing. Retrieved 19, Feb. 2021:


Brown, James, (2020). Some deafblind lose services - and socialization - during Covid 19 pandemic. City News. Retrieved 22, Feb. 2021:


Hom, Megan, (2021). What is tactile sign language and how is it used? Take Lessons. Retrieved 16, Feb. 2021:


Juma, Norbert. (2020, Dec. 11).70 Helen Keller quotes on vision, love and success to inspire, EverydayPower. Retrieved 16, Feb. 2021:


Massey, David. (1997). Bell systems advertisements: human desires to communicate with others, Beatrice Company.  Retrieved 16, Feb. 2021:,The%20first%20commercial%20debuted%20on%20Johnny%20Carson%27s%20The


McNichols, Joshua. (2020, April 23). I can't stop touching people. Even now with the coronavirus, KUOW. Retrieved 19, Feb. 2021:


Meredith, Sam. (2021, Jan. 20). Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine found to be effective against Covid variant discovered in UK, CNBC. Retrieved 19, Feb. 2021:


NLS, (2020). Deaf-Blindness, The National Library Service for Blind and Print Disabled Library of Congress. Retrieved 16, Feb. 2021:,blind%20in%20the%20United%20States.


PsychCentral Staff, (2020, April 4). Background and history of the coronavirus (COVID-19), PsychCentral Newsletter. Retrieved 16, Feb. 2021:


Wright, Robin, (2020, April 28) Who is "Worthy"? DeafBlind People Fear Doctors Won't Save Them From the Coronavirus, The New Yorker. Retrieved 19, Feb. 2021.



Notes:  Also see: The Impact of COVID-19 on the Deaf Community



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