Washington, D.C., May 6 – As the access needs for people with disabilities increase during COVID-19 communications, one program – being led by a person who is deaf himself – is providing a free hotline bringing the deaf community information on the pandemic in both American Sign Language and English. In order to help spread information and curb misinformation, a team of deaf agents fluent in ASL have been trained to provide information about coronavirus.
“Equal access to information for our community is a societal imperative each and every day, but especially right now as we all strive to cope with this health pandemic,” said Craig Radford, the Director of Strategy and Business Development for Connect Direct, which is behind the new hotline through Communication Service for the Deaf (CSD), the largest deaf-led social impact nonprofit in the United States.
Prior to the pandemic, Connect Direct provided ASL customer service for companies that may not have previous experience serving deaf customers. When deaf customers call a company’s customer service line, they are routed to Connect Direct’s ASL-knowledgeable representatives, who answer the customer’s questions. Fortunately for deaf people during the COVID-19 crisis, Connect Direct is showing that it can be just as useful fighting a pandemic, as it can in providing inclusive commerce.
When Radford and his colleagues saw a need in the deaf community for up-do-date information about COVID-19, he knew the hotline could help. Shortly after the coronavirus crisis began, Connect Direct pivoted and trained their representatives in answering coronavirus-related questions.
Doing double duty of customer service and coronavirus assistance has changed how the hotline operates. “We’ve gotten more calls lately about the stimulus package, a lot about guidance and support for that,” Radford said. “The deaf community has been asking about the best available resources, to see what they need to do to get ahead of this entire pandemic.”
Radford keeps a list of the most common questions he gets: “A lot are related to data – information about where we are now, how many cases.” Other common questions are about how to protect yourself, how to spot coronavirus symptoms, whether people need to be tested if they are symptomatic, and how to file for unemployment.
“People are also asking a lot about restrictions in their local areas, or rules regarding stay-at-home orders,” Radford said, adding that people with animals want to make sure their pets will not be infected.
Connect Direct’s COVID-19 hotline helps with another major coronavirus concern: mental health issues. Thanks to a partnership with National Deaf Therapy, the deaf community’s need for psychological support is being met. Connect Direct can transfer callers to one of NDT’s Deaf therapists, ensuring the whole person is cared for. While the partnership has been in the works for half a year, it came online in April of 2020, as the quarantine’s effects became worse.
Connect Direct was started to provide economic inclusion and access for the deaf community, but under the leadership of Radford, it has effortlessly pivoted to help that same community cope with an historic crisis.