Dr. Opeoluwa Sotonwa is the executive director of the Missouri Commission for the Deaf & Hard of Hearing in Jefferson City.
He spoke about the importance of accessible communication for Deaf and Hard of Hearing Missourians and about some recent advances – like the availability of clear masks and American Sign Language interpreters at Governor Mike Parson’s COVID-19 briefings – and how those have impacted the lives and well-being of all Missourians during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
Missouri Health Talks gathers Missourians’ stories of access to healthcare in their own words. You can view more conversations at missourihealthtalks.org.
Dr. Opeoluwa Sotonwa: Communication is something that we do every day, all day, every day. There's no way around communication. So, when communication has a barrier, then it becomes a larger issue or problematic that may impact several other areas of your life.
That may include the ability to hold on to a job, being able to communicate with people at home, when you go to the doctor's office having to communicate there. With these clear masks, that means that you'll be able to lip read a little bit.
It's not just for the Deaf person, it's for both people in the communication. Since communication is a two-way street. My ability to understand you and your ability to understand me, really is a two-way street.
If either one of us does not have access to the other when it comes to communication, then communication's just not happening. So, it's definitely important for those 600,000 Deaf and Hard of Hearing citizens that live here in the state of Missouri to have access to communication.
Rebecca Smith: What does it mean for you and other Missourians who are Deaf and hard of hearing to see AJ on the screen every day with the Governor?
Dr. Opeoluwa Sotonwa: So, for the first time, many Missourians felt that their voice, or really their language, was recognized at this level, and we're talking about recognition of ASL or language, but oftentimes we discuss it on paper or in theory, we don't really see it in practice, but here we are starting to see this in practice on TV or on Facebook Live.
And so, going forward, we want to make sure that this is a common occurrence. Whenever the governor has any public communication, not just on coronavirus, but any public communication or correspondence that the governor's office has - or really any public official, any entity like that - we want to make sure that interpreters are included going forward
So, I'm hoping that this will lead to more and more accessibility being provided with this recognition that our languages are equal - we have these languages provided, we want to make sure that this continues to be provided.
We want to make sure that that comfort of knowing that an interpreter will be there when a Deaf individual watches their public official speak, we want to make sure that that comfort is there, and we want to see that humanity being respected.
Oftentimes in the past, we've been made to feel like second class citizens because we weren't made aware of what was been said, but now we feel that we're on par when it comes to information, just like everybody else in the state of Missouri. Now we have the opportunity to see that service being provided on a statewide scale.