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'Seriously, Germany?' Deaf people and the coronavirus

Leonie von Hammerstein
March 16, 2020

Germany lags far behind when it comes to accessible information and medical services for the deaf. In coronavirus times, some activists fear this could be deadly. They're demanding the German government step up.

A tester holds out a coronavirus test tube next to a stop sign
Image: Imago-Images/7aktuell

Lena Finkbeiner is angry. Angry that the German government missed the boat and continues to remain largely inactive. Angry that not enough is being done to ensure deaf people have adequate access to information. But most of all she's angry right now that an emergency has occurred, with a contagious virus spreading rapidly that requires precautions, information and treatment.

Deaf people have not had sufficient access to that information and treatment so far. This is dangerous not only for them but also for the rest of society — after all, preventing the spread of the new coronavirus is key.

"Seriously, Germany?" the deaf activist asks using sign language in a video she produced with 11 other advocates and which they published on YouTube [Finkbeiner appears at 1:19: Eds.].

Finkbeiner did not expect so many responses to her video, she tells DW. "Many deaf people have developed a kind of 'allergy' to the medical field because they have been always left feeling like there was something wrong with them that needed fixing." 

She was surprised when her mobile phone continually vibrated with people contacting her who wanted to participate in the video — a sign that this topic is on many people's minds right now. The German Federation of the Deaf (Deutsche Gehörlosen-Bund) estimates around 83,000 deaf people currently live in Germany.

Language barriers for deaf people

"Does a deaf person have to die from the coronavirus as a result of barred accessibility and a lack of information before the government acts?" deaf interpreter Corinna Brenner signs.

The unprecedented situation the coronavirus has created underlines the numerous barriers deaf people encounter every day. It starts with access to information; government websites seldom have material available in sign language. Written text is often insufficient, as many deaf people find it difficult to read and write in German, since learning a written language involves phonetics. If this is not possible, learning becomes laborious, and the language becomes foreign.

This makes it vitally important for coronavirus information to be also made available in sign language, the 3D mother tongue of many deaf people. Brenner says this measure should also implemented at important press conferences.

Corinna Brenner and Lela Finkbeiner discuss the coronavirus crisis in German with one another
Brenner (L) and Finkbeiner (R) are trying to get the German government to provide more deaf-accessible coronavirus informationImage: DW/Leonie von Hammerstein

Should a deaf person manifest any symptoms of the coronavirus disease, or COVID-19, they then face a further obstacle, Brenner explains; their only option is to call dedicated COVID-19 hotlines, which are not accessible for deaf people. Should a deaf person eventually need to go to a hospital with coronavirus, Brenner says it would be almost impossible to find an interpreter at short notice, let alone secure adequate medical care.

Germany's health minister under pressure

According to Jürgen Dusel, the federal government's commissioner for matters relating to persons with disabilities, responsibility lies with the German government and Health Minister Jens Spahn. During Thursday's parliamentary question time, Corinna Rüffer, a member of the opposition Green party, brought the issue up with the minister, sharing it in a tweet:

"Information on the #coronavirus from [the German Health Ministry] and the Robert Koch Institute [Germany's public health institute] is not yet accessible" for those with disabilities, Rüffer wrote. "[Spahn] has promised rectification. It's about time!"

Spahn said he would consider the issue "with the vigor, with which it was rightfully here addressed."

"That statement: 'I will consider the issue.' That's a real insult to me," Finkbeiner says. "I want to see a readiness to take action."

Slow progress

In a statement to DW, a spokesperson from the ministry of health said readiness to address the issue exists. The ministry will work "at full speed" to improve access to communication. In addition, the ministry has set up a coronavirus telephone hotline for the deaf and hearing impaired, the spokesperson said.

The Federal Center for Health Education is also planning informative sign language video content. It is doing everything it can to guarantee access to important information as quickly as possible, a spokeswoman confirmed.

Read more: Are German hospitals unprepared for coronavirus outbreak?

Positive initiatives are also emerging in Germany's individual states: Hamburg's city-state government has published an explanatory sign-language video on the virus and in Baden-Württemberg, a COVID-19 press conference was simultaneously translated into sign language.

A medical worker in a face masks stands outside a clinic dedicated to coronavirus treatment
Deaf people have complained that the lack of accessible information hampers their access to information about the coronavirusImage: Reuters/M. Rietschel

Germany lags behind other countries

And yet other countries seem to be much further along when it comes to providing deaf-accessible information. Be it in Italy, Finland or the US, government press conferences regarding the coronavirus are simultaneously translated into sign language. Since sign language, just like spoken language, is different in every country, this information is not available to people who understand only German sign language.

Germany signed the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities one decade ago. It declares access to information to be a human right for people with disabilities. So why is the country lagging behind?

"My impression is that accessibility, whether in the construction sector or in communications, is seen in Germany as either a 'nice to have' or as an additional burden. The fact that this is a basic human right is often ignored," Dusel says.

Jürgen Dusel
Dusel is commissioner responsible for ensuring the rights of disabled individuals in GermanyImage: picture-alliance/dpa/S. Stache

Even if one sets aside the current coronavirus crisis, deaf people's insufficient access to information and medical resources remains evident. Brenner says many deaf people normally have to wait four to six weeks before they can get an interpreter to accompany them to the doctors' office or a hospital. Whether it is for medical care, information about a traffic situation, opinion polls or career advancement, deaf people are continually dealing with barriers.

Above all, Finkbeiner and Brenner wish for just one thing: That the responsible authorities work closer with the deaf community to create solutions. And in the case of the coronavirues — to stay healthy.

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