What it’s like to be a deaf teenager during a pandemic

What is it like to be deaf or hard of hearing in times of a pandemic? CBC Ottawa reached out to two teenagers from a west Ottawa school to understand their experience.

Consortium Center Jules-Léger teaches students from from kindergarten to high school who are deaf, blind, deafblind, as well as those with learning disabilities. Because he is the only school in Canada outside Quebec that teaches students in French and using Quebec Sign Language (LSQ), many students live on campus.

Alicia and Kai say that being able to communicate with their peers in Quebec Sign Language (LSQ) makes them feel more connected as a community. (Francis Ferland/CBC)

CBC spoke to Alicia Mbesha (11th grade) and Kaï Haché (Grade 12) — with the help of LSQ interpreter Ginie Petit — to learn about the challenges they faced during the pandemic, their experience at school and their hopes for the future.

This interview has been edited for length, style and clarity.

Alicia Mbesha is an 11th grade student at the Consortium Center Jules-Léger. She says living in residence with other deaf students has helped her feel less isolated. (Francis Ferland/CBC)

Do you identify as deaf or hard of hearing?

Kai: I consider myself deaf and proud of it.

Alice: My community knows that my identity is definitely deaf, but with other people I will say that I am hard of hearing. Often, when I remove my hearing aids, I only speak verbally so that hearing people can understand me. But my first language is sign language.

Your families both live in Ottawa, but you have decided to live in the school residence. Why?

Kai: I love the residency because I can sign with my community. It’s more social, I have more accessibility with people thanks to the signature. I can speak my own language.

Alice: I decided to go to residence [a year ago] because I felt very isolated at home. I don’t have other deaf people in my community who can understand me. So it was very important for me to be with my deaf community.

Kaï Haché, a 12th grade student, hopes to become an engineer or a teacher after graduating from the Consortium Center Jules-Léger. He says being part of a co-op program has helped him prepare for the future. (Francis Ferland/CBC)

For me, being in residence changed almost everything. We are all in a similar world. It’s easier for me here because at home I have to repeat myself. People couldn’t understand me.

What impact has the pandemic had on your experience?

Kai: [Despite living on campus] all my classes were online which made us very tired. We constantly had to stare at the screen and try to follow.

Alice: Masks made it very difficult for deaf people. We couldn’t read lips for a long time. You also don’t see people’s facial expressions very clearly. It is impossible to communicate. We usually had to ask people if they would mind taking their masks off so we could communicate better.

What are your hopes for the future as you get closer to graduation?

Kai: I would like to become an engineer or a teacher. I love robotics. It’s my favorite area.

Haché and Mbesha say they have found a community within their school. (Francis Ferland/CBC)

Alice: My hope for the future is to go to college or university in health care. I’m a people-loving, caring person, but I’m still not 100% sure.

Kai, you’ve been a student at this school since the first year. How do you feel about leaving and entering mainstream education?

Kai: Here, all my lessons are suitable for me in sign language. We have interpreters, teachers and specialists to help us.

I would like to go to college first and then, if I can, I would like to go to a university in Ottawa. But I would like some help. I know I will have access to an interpreter and accommodations to make things more accessible for me.

Alicia, how ready do you feel to enter mainstream education after graduating?

Alice: I feel good, but I’m a little nervous about leaving school and my deaf community as well. Changing environments, interactions with everyone are going to be different. I will have to adapt.

To Jules-Léger Center Consortium, one can stay in school until the age of 21. So we have more time. We don’t need to graduate until we feel comfortable and ready.

Consortium Center Jules-Léger is the only school outside of Quebec that teaches students only in spoken French and LSQ. (Francis Ferland/CBC)

What do you want people to know about your experience as a deaf student in Ottawa?

Kai: Don’t be afraid to ask us questions or ask me questions. I can speak. I can sign. I can communicate. I can write. I can communicate in any way so that we can exchange information. It is still possible to make it work.

Alice: I want you to know that sign language allowed me to see the world in a different way. My identity is clear now. It is a beautiful language. It’s really fun and I encourage everyone to learn this language.

My community is truly wonderful. It’s nice. It is a culture.

Very often people ask me, ‘Oh, can you become hearing? Is there a solution ?’ For me, it’s like “no, I don’t want to”. I was born like this.’

I don’t want to change. I can’t become a hearing person anyway. I am very happy as I am. I am who I am.

COVID has brought to light the communication challenges faced by people who are deaf and hard of hearing, particularly due to the impact of masks. CBC Ottawa reached out to members of this community to ask what they’ve been through during the pandemic and what they want people to know about their lives.

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