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TRANSCRIPT | ABC NEWS LIVE PRIME | APRIL 28, 2020

FACING COVID-19 WHILE DEAF AND BLIND  


 
[LINSEY DAVIS, ANCHOR]: This pandemic with its months of
quarantine and economic turmoil has been a stressful experience for so many of us. But
imagine being unable to see or hear clearly throughout this difficult time. Tens of
thousands of deaf-blind Americans are coming to terms with a new normal during
COVID-19, one that’s challenging their ability to survive and thrive. Here’s ABC’s
Devin Dwyer.

[AMBULENCE SIREN]
   
[DEVIN DWYER, ABC CORRESPONDENT] For most of us, sights and sounds of the
COVID emergency have been inescapable.
   
[AMBULENCE SIREN]

[DAVID MUIR NEWSCAST] ...cases of coronavirus spiking here in the U.S....

[NY GOV. ANDREW CUOMO] ...on every level, this is a terrible experience...
   
[DWYER] But for some Americans, the scope of this outbreak has been uniquely
difficult to face
   
[PHILIP WISMER, STUDENT, GALLAUDET UNIVERSITY] My name is Philip
Wismer. I am deaf-blind.
   
[DWYER] Philip Wismer, a student at Gallaudet University in Washington, is one of an
estimated 40,000 Americans facing COVID-19 while unable to clearly see or hear.
   
[WISMER] I have not gone off campus since March 18. I only come out of my dorm to
get food, get the mail, and that’s about it.

[DWYER] It sounds lonely?

[WISMER] Yeah, it is. Sometimes I do feel lonely. My other friends that are
completely blind are feeling very, very isolated. It’s very difficult for everyone, but
especially for deaf-blind people across the country.
   
[DWYER] DeafBlind Americans survive by touch: hand over hand to communicate;
fingers on braille signs for mobility; hugs and handshakes to feel connected.
   
[DWYER] Experts say deaf-blindness is a spectrum. Not everyone experiences complete
darkness or total silence. But touch is critical -- and now comes with significant health
risks.
   
[AHSLEY BENTON, N.C DEAF-BLIND SERVICES COORDINATOR] Our way of
communicating and our culture, everything relies on touch. And now we’re not allowed
to touch.

[JORGE ARISTIZIABAL, SEATTLE, WASHINGTON] The requirement to stay 6 feet


away from other people is actually not safe for me. As a blind person, I need to touch my
guide.
   
[DWYER] And many guides are fearful of being touched, and touching back.

[TONY CANCELOSI, CEO, COLUMBIA LIGHTHOUSE FOR THE BLIND] Being


home alone is a very big issue that we’re faced with today. We’re talking about all the
things that could happen - additional suicides and certain things like that.
   
[DWYER] 28 year-old Tyler Samuel of Nashville, Tennessee, says she’s fighting that
loneliness, relying on her partner for help with daily tasks. A genetic condition since birth
has degraded her hearing and her sight.
   
[TYLER SAMUEL, NASHVILLE, TENNESSEE] In my youth, I just really worried that
I wouldn’t find that independence. And when you do find it, you don’t want to lose
it. And so for it to be kind of chipped away is -- it kinda lowers your self-esteem.
   
[DWYER] Samuel still walks to work every day by herself.
   
[SAMUEL] ...This is my now kind of empty walk home....
   
[DWYER] A pediatric surgery coordinator at Vanderbilt University Hospital. She’s a
freelance opera singer with dreams of going big...

[OPERA MUSIC]

[DWYER] ..but the pandemic has prompted some soul searching.


   
[SAMUEL] I lost a friend two weeks ago to COVID and she was very young, early
30s, and it kind of prompted me to go ahead and get my advance directive and my will
together. It’s something that I want to make my wishes known.
   
[DWYER] A trip to the hospital is what many deaf-blind Americans told ABC News they
fear most.
   
[HABEN GIRMA, DISABILITY RIGHTS ADVOCATE] There is an assumption in a lot
of medical communities that it’s better to be dead than disabled.
   
[DWYER] Haben Girma is a leading advocate for the community.
   
[GIRMA] I would be deeply terrified I would not get communication access, that I would
not get the care I needed if I were to get the virus and go to the hospital.
   
[DWYER] She says it’s a fight for equality. The daughter of an Eritrean refugee, Girma
is the first deaf-blind woman to graduate from Harvard Law School. In 2015, President
Obama recognized her as a Champion of Change.
[DWYER] When I’m asking you the questions today, you’re actually feeling my question
with your fingers?

[GIRMA] When you ask me questions, I’m feeling the questions.


   
[DWYER] With her special braille keyboard, and guide dog Milo by her side,
Girma and an informal network of deaf-blind advocates are determined not to be
forgotten.
   
[REBECCA ALEXANDER, NEW YORK CITY, NEW YORK] it’s certainly not sexy
to have a disability and to deal with deaf-blindness. I think it makes people very
uncomfortable generally.
   
[DWYER] Rebecca Alexander of New York City wants the world to know that deaf-
blind professionals can pitch in, too. She’s volunteering her services as a counselor to
hospital workers on the front lines.
   
[ALEXANDER] Just knowing that even someone like me, who the community I think at
large, if they knew how limited my vision and my hearing was, they might not consider
me as someone they would reach out for help and it does feel good to be able to provide
that.
   
[DWYER] Ashley Benton, who coordinates services for the deaf-blind in North Carolina,
says police in rural areas are checking on residents who don't have technology to
communicate.
   
[BENTON] They contacted us, which was beautiful, and so we were able to work with
the officers who have the appropriate PPE to go in and check on this deaf-blind consumer
to make sure that they were safe. It’s so important because we’re all going through this
together
   
[DWYER] Near Seattle, deaf-blind sisters Nancy and Debbie Sommer sticking together
through it all.
   
[NANCY SOMMER, SEATTLE, WASHINGTON] Without touch, we can't connect at
all. We thank goodness we have computers and smart phones so we can talk to each other
with friends. and that’s so much better than nothing, right Debbie?
   
[DWYER] A persistence to stay connected, and to contribute to the recovery.

[GIRMA] Figure out what you can do to give back and help your community.
   
[DWYER] The deaf-blind community raising it voice in its own way...
   
[DWYER] What do you like to sing these days?

[SAMUEL] I love Queen. I like did all of Bohemian Rhapsody.


   
[DWYER] ...and, like so many, dreaming of that big escape after COVID....

[WISMER] What I would like to do after this is all over with: let’s take a vacation.
   
[DWYER] ... just thankful for what they still can touch.
   
[DEBBIE SOMMER, SEATTLE, WASHINGTON] I’m just keeping my fingers crossed
that everything will be ready to open again, and hoping that the COVID-19 decreases
   
[DWYER] For ABC News Live, I’m Devin Dwyer in Washington.