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How has the pandemic impacted deaf children?

Published Date: 13 Apr 2022
Photo: The impact of pandemic

All children, deaf and hearing, have suffered during the pandemic. While responses to COVID-19 have varied from country to country and occurred at different times due to different waves and emerging variants, almost every child has had long periods of missing out on education and community.

At Deaf Child Worldwide, we have seen the unique impact these restrictions have had particularly on deaf children. Through commissioned research, reports from our partners working with deaf children, and from our networks and contacts with deaf communities around the world, we have built an evidence base on what the effects have been.

Below we have summarised what we regard as the three key impacts of the pandemic on deaf children in developing countries:

1.) Language loss or stagnation

We have seen that deaf children and young people have suffered from language stagnation or language loss. This is particularly worrying in the context that deaf children from low-income communities are already severely delayed in their language. Deafness is not a learning disability, but when a deaf child isn’t surrounded by a language that is accessible to them – this is usually sign language – they cannot learn concepts and begin to understand the world around them as quickly as a hearing child does. Without language, a child does not have the building blocks they need to learn to read and write.

The pandemic has meant that children spent nearly two years away from residential deaf schools or community programmes which teach deaf children and their families how to sign. Our partners are telling us that because of this, language has stagnated or deteriorated in many children.

Deaf children will need intensive language support over the next few years. Language enables a deaf child to understand concepts, communicate with those around them, and develop or continue their literacy.

2.) Inaccessible education

In many countries, the government response to the pandemic was to move school lessons online, or put them on the radio or on TV. Radio is obviously inaccessible for deaf children, and TV lessons were difficult or impossible for deaf children to understand if they were not subtitled or had no sign language interpretation. We know [from research Deaf Child Worldwide commissioned in West Bengal, India] that almost a third of the deaf young people surveyed did not have any access to a smartphone at all – and those who did, worried about how to afford the data, and found videos in sign language buffered so frequently they were hard to follow.

This shows how inaccessible education intersects disability with poverty and living rurally. Families who cannot afford technology such as a radio, TV or a smartphone, or those who live in a rural area where connectivity doesn’t exist, were cut out of education for much of the pandemic. In our work we have also seen other types of intersectionality, such as gender ethnicity and caste, affect access to education.

3.) Social and behavioural problems

Sadly, we have seen that deaf children and young people have suffered emotionally during the pandemic, and this has impacted their behaviour and social abilities.

Of course, all children have found school closures, long periods of time unable to see their friends and play outside, difficult and distressing. But for deaf children, these difficulties have been made worse as they have in many cases been among family who do not sign or sign very little. With no access to their deaf community, the frustration of being cut off from hearing family using spoken language has also taken its toll. Parents have described their deaf children’s behaviour as ‘quarrelsome’ ‘stubborn’ and ‘aggressive’. Other children have become withdrawn and lost their interest in studying.

Despite these challenges, we are hearing from partners that with the return to schools, children are recovering. For many, although not all, they are responding well to being with their peers again, hearing and deaf, and that language is returning. It gives us hope to see the resilience of children shine through at this difficult time.