Time after time I’ve read posts or watched vlogs of horror stories from Deaf and Hard of Hearing people dealing with doctor offices and hospital visits.
I’ve experienced many of these first-hand myself. It happens so often that I’m spurred to write this article to educate the medical community on what you need to know about your Deaf patients.
First, I’m primarily focusing on the “Deaf” community, those who are likely to have American Sign Language (ASL) as their first language, may not be fluent in English, and believe they are not “broken” and don’t need to be fixed by the medical community. This is the group that struggles against communication and accessibility barriers in hospitals, doctor’s offices, and in daily dealings with the public.
To ease this tension and foster a good doctor-patient relationship, you need to understand the following points:
A Certified Interpreter is Vital
As I mentioned earlier, ASL is our first language and easiest for us to comprehend and communicate in. ASL is not a “translation” of English, it has its own grammar, syntax and rules. It uses the full range of hand movements, facial expressions, and body language to convey the message.
Because of the complexity of medical terminology, the gravity of the medical visit, the condition the patient may be in, and the need for clear communication – a Certified interpreter is required. There’s a huge difference between a certified interpreter who understands and can relay medical issues and someone who “knows how to sign”.
For example, a cardiologist hired an ASL student for a Deaf patient’s visit. The student struggled to come up with the right sign for certain words and the signing was not “smooth”, akin to someone pausing and saying “Ummm” a lot. The student signed to the Deaf patient “You have Heart Pain” to which the Deaf patient denied repeatedly. After several frustrated attempts back and forth it was understood that the doctor really said “You have Heartburn”. The Deaf patient gave up, wrote to the Doctor “I’m leaving! I’ll come back when you get a proper interpreter!”
Video Remote Interpreting (VRI) is not Accessible
Many hospital and large medical offices are relying on VRI, which is a laptop or monitor connected by Wi-Fi to an interpreter located off site. As cost effective this may be on administrative paper, it is not an accessible or effective means of communication for Deaf patients.
As a matter of fact, we HATE it!
Forget the fact it takes forever to sign in, enter hospital name, department number, hospital floor, head nurse name, room number and patient name and account number, etcetera.
It uses the hospital’s Wi-Fi connection, which as many patients know, is very slow, frequently drops out, and requires frequent sign-ins. Then there’s the problem with viewing:
- the screens are clumsy to position
- it’s sometimes hard to see the screen from where we’re laying in the bed
- the interpreter may not be able to see the Deaf patient or their Deaf family members
- because of the Wi-Fi connection, there are frequent screen freezes so there are a lot of words missed
- and lastly there are those who also have vision problems, or are deafblind, who prefer tactile sign language, rather than straining to see a flat screen.
This humorous clip demonstrates the frustrations of VRI.
Stop Assuming We Are Mentally Deficient
Just because they are Deaf doesn’t mean they can’t grasp what you’re explaining to them. A missing sense doesn’t translate into missing brain functioning.
I have met countless of doctors, nurses and other professionals who upon learning that I’m Deaf and legally blind, automatically assume I’m incapable of daily self-care; then they’re surprised I actually have a Bachelor’s degree, married with children and independent and don’t need a “caretaker”.
We are fully capable of understanding you, and are able to participate in health decisions once the proper communication method is in place: which is an interpreter. Writing back and forth and lipreading is a lot less efficient than doctors realize.
Don’t Question Our Deafness
Many Deaf patients feel frustrated at doctors insisting on questioning them about the cause of their deafness when it’s irrelevant to the medical visit. Don’t ask why they do or don’t wear hearing aids or get cochlear implants.
Like I said earlier, Deaf people feel that they’re not broken; they concentrate on what they can do with their rich culture just like anyone else, instead of concentrating on hearing, speaking, and assimilating into the “hearing” world.
Don’t Be Dismissive
Many Deaf parents, like myself, are frustrated by the dismissive attitude of doctors and nurses when they bring their children in for appointments or to the ER. The medical staff starts communicating with the child and don’t address the parent at all.
This may seem easier to deal with, but the child is still a child and do not understand the complexity of their medical needs. Children also don’t relay the full information back to their Deaf parents either which is also why you shouldn’t use them as interpreters as well.
Because of these frustrating experiences by Deaf patients, they tend to avoid seeking medical treatment, skip regular checkups and have an overall mistrust of the medical community.
So to better serve your Deaf patients and avoid costly lawsuits, it would be a good idea to simply use common sense, drop the stereotypical assumptions, and follow these simple tips.
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