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Our Work Continues: Supporting Deaf and Hard of Hearing Families with Communication and Advocacy

Deaf Services

For over 150 years, The New York Foundling has worked in partnership with our neighbors to ensure that everyone can meet their full potential when facing challenging situations. This hasn’t changed, and our staff continue to provide life-changing and meaningful support in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. This series shares how The Foundling’s many programs are responding to the needs of their community.

Since 1982, The Foundling has been the only specialized provider of family support and prevention programs that serves the Deaf or Hard-of-Hearing community in all five boroughs of New York City The Foundling’s Family Services for Deaf Children and Adults helps keep children out of foster care by strengthening the family system and increasing access to available community supports. All of our therapists and interventionists are fluent in American Sign Language (ASL), and pre-COVID-19, they met with families in their homes and in their communities.

Since the onset of COVID-19, our team has been helping families overcome the hurdles that followed, ensuring that they stayed on their continued path to family stability.

The Foundling’s Family Services for Deaf Children and Adults is supported by 11 staff members, including therapists, interventionists, supervisors, and an interpreter. Since March, home visits shifted to videoconference – using platforms like videophone devices that simultaneously transmit and receive both audio and video signals over telephone lines, or online solutions like Zoom or Microsoft Teams. These weekly sessions run for 45 minutes or up to an hour and a half, depending on each family’s needs.

“We’re used to meeting in person,” says Diana Abayeva, a program interventionist. “It was a hard transition at first, because some of our families didn’t have smartphones or cellular reception. But thankfully we were able to resolve these technology issues.”

“Our families are managing just like the rest of us,” adds Diana. “Homeschooling their children on top of their parental and work duties or finding childcare when daycare was closed—it’s a challenge. And they want to get this right.”

“Some have reported loneliness and frustration at home, particularly when family members they’re quarantined with don’t know sign language,” therapist Kenya Bryant says.

That’s why program staff are working with the families to improve their communications skills and encouraging family members to learn American Sign Language. “And it’s working,” Kenya continues. “It’s bringing families closer together.”

Families have used this time to pick up new hobbies, and they’re reporting a heightened focus on practicing self-care at home.

And practicing self-care is needed: the virus has posed unique challenges to the Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing community. “One of the downsides to our families’ ability to communicate during the pandemic is that people are wearing masks,” Diana explains. “Many people who are Deaf or Hard-of-Hearing rely on reading lips, but this is not possible with the speaker is wearing a mask. This hinders their ability to be independent.”

As an alternative, some Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing prefer to communicate in writing using the Notes app on their smartphones.

Another challenge revolves around doctor’s appointments. One family needed mental health services for their child, but the provider only conducted telehealth sessions through an encrypted videoconference platform. While the child logged into that platform, their mother, who is Deaf, had to join separately via videophone. She had a hard time keeping track of who said what across the different platforms during the appointment. Not being able to know what the doctor said about her child’s health—or what her child was saying about their own health—was incredibly emotional and frustrating. “I talked to the provider and convinced them to switch to Zoom and hire an interpreter to join the sessions to the conversation for the mother,” says Diana. “That worked out so much better.”

Getting credible and reliable news resources can be another challenge. “We have been directing them to vloggers and reporters who use sign language when posting daily news,” Kenya says.

In response to COVID-19, families have received donations such as household items, electronic devices for communication and remote learning, clothing, and money to purchase food. “We are doing everything we can to help get them through a tough time,” says Diana.

To learn more about how The New York Foundling is responding to the COVID-19 pandemic in New York, visit our emergency response page. Stay tuned for more stories from the frontlines as we continue to support our neighbors on paths to stability and strength.

Read past posts in the ‘Our Work Continues’ blog series:

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