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Two Americas: Kansas City's deaf community challenged by the pandemic

Lakin Clumsky two americas
Posted at 3:00 PM, Oct 18, 2021
and last updated 2021-10-18 23:43:15-04

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — District Pour House and Kitchen in Kansas City’s Waldo neighborhood has something for everybody.

Lakin Clumsky would know. She’s been a part of the kitchen for five years. Clumsky said this last year proved to be a whole new challenge.

“I remember when I got the text message saying ‘Hey, we are coming back to work, we are wearing masks,’ and I just started crying and I was just like, ‘I don’t know how I’m going to do my job if I can’t hear, or lip read very well.’"

As an infant, Clumsky lost her hearing due to spinal meningitis and wears hearing aids to help.

“I have a hard time with really low voices, I have a really hard time hearing those even with my hearing aids and then a lot of background noise it’s hard for me to hear,” she said. “Lip reading comes into play there.”

With the nation wearing masks, she said it’s done no favors for those who rely on lip-reading.

“I can’t read your lips and see if you’re talking to me, so looking at me and maintaining eye contact, even pointing on menus, that helps a lot too,” she said. “Speaking up. I don’t need you to yell at me but speak up and speak clearly.”

Clumsky wanted to find an easy way communicate that to her customers.

“I saw online that there were these buttons you could get,” she said. “Just so I have it on my mask and people can just automatically see ‘Hey, hard of hearing, please speak up,’ and then they can hopefully do that.”

She said sometimes people still don't get it.

“Some people joke about it and say, 'Oh yeah we all could use that button. We all have a hard time hearing,’ and I consider that a little dismissive because yes, I get it, we all wear masks, it muffles your speech a little bit — but I have a legit excuse," Clumsky said. "I need you to speak up and look at me because I can’t read lips anymore.”

Accessibility is a huge issue for those who are deaf or hard of hearing, but there’s one place in Olathe that is putting in the work not only to educate students but the community: the Kansas School for the Deaf.

The school's superintendent, Luanne Barron, said the Olathe Police Department did a study to see how many people are hard of hearing in the metro.

“The results indicated that we are the second largest population of deaf, hard of hearing individuals in the United States with a population of about 10,000 in the metro area,” Barron said.

Barron said the study was done 10 years ago, and the number has greatly increased with new families moving to Olathe just for the school.

That, she said, should serve as a reminder to the metro hearing community to be mindful and empathetic.

“Become more sensitive, more compassionate,” Barron said. “This is a very large community with a broad range of needs. You’re going to see various deaf, hard of hearing people all over the place within professions, different businesses. Try to be more empathetic.”

Barron said it would be a big help if hearing people learned sign language.

“Learn the language, I mean honestly it's simple, it’s offered everywhere,” she said.

The basics of American Sign Language, and in Clumsky’s case, the basics of respect and patience can go a long way in including all members of a community.

“There was never a point where I wanted to give up because there was nothing I could do about it. I just have to adjust and go with it and do the best I can," Clumsky said.

Resources to learn more about the deaf community: