TEMPE, AZ — Even in her own home, Donna Taylor expected to be left out of the conversation.
The 84-year-old Tempe woman who is deaf, was prepared to communicate with ABC15 through pen and paper, because that's normally what she must do in the hearing world.
"I always have my pen and paper ready," she told ABC15. "Because I often have to write back and forth. Sometimes people don't understand sign on. Sometimes when I do write, they can't even read, and they have to find somebody else to communicate with me."
Instead, ABC15 came with an interpreter to speak her language: American Sign Language. It's a necessity for people who are deaf that is often treated as a luxury by people who can hear.
Taylor said the ability to communicate during everyday tasks with people who are hearing has improved throughout her lifetime, but it is far from perfect.
Doctor's appointments, for example, are a recurring challenge in the availability of ASL interpreters.
"Every once in a while, a nurse will come out and say, 'We don't have an interpreter today,'" Taylor said. "Which has made for a waste of time I'd have traveled there. I have to reschedule and come back and then just hope that there's an interpreter that time."
She said, in less formal situations, it is sometimes a challenge to even get people to communicate through writing.
"Even if you try to let them know the struggle that you're having, they just keep going with what they're comfortable with. Sometimes I would just have to walk away. Not always, but that's probably the most challenging," Taylor described.
The coronavirus pandemic has made communication even more challenging with masks. People who are deaf or hard of hearing sometimes attempt to read lips to understand what is being said.
"I have to pull it down. You try to talk and you can't understand each other. And then you just end up pulling the mask off anyway, so that you can see each others' lips. It's not easy," Taylor said.
More than 1.1 million Arizonans are deaf or hard of hearing, according to the Arizona Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing.
"We're an invisible community," said Sherri Collins, ACDHH Executive Director. "You don't know that we're deaf or hard of hearing until you encounter us."
Collins, who describes herself as profoundly deaf, has headed the commission for many years and said its mission is to increase accessibility to communication.
"We're constantly out there educating the general public about our community, offer our expertise, to be a partner, offer be part of the solution," she said.
That expertise was especially important during the pandemic.
"Even in government, agencies still are not fully accessible. So we have to remind them, 'Don't forget about our community as well.' Because English is not the first language," Collins said.
Access goes beyond an interpreter.
Collins said accurate closed captioning, ASL, and transcripts for events online are important in providing equal access to information.
"If a hearing person can get that information services, then make sure our community included. That's it. Be inclusive," she said.
That inclusion is built into Taylor's apartment complex, Apache ASL Trails in Tempe. It is the only community that caters specifically to seniors who are deaf.
"It feels like a big family with a great support system. If I didn't have it, I would feel really lonely," Taylor said.
A safe space where she is understood. No pen or paper needed.