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5 Things I Wish Doctors Understood About the Deaf Community

Time after time I’ve read posts or watched vlogs of horror stories from Deaf and Hard of Hearing people dealing with doctor’s 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, follow these simple tips:

1. 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,” 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, and wrote to the doctor “I’m leaving! I’ll come back when you get a proper interpreter!”

2. 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 as this may be on administrative paper, it is not an accessible or effective means of communication for Deaf patients. As a matter of fact, many of us 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, etc. The system 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 are the problems 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, and because of the Wi-Fi connection, the screen often freezes, causing words to be missed. 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.

3. Treat us as mentally capable.

Just because someone is Deaf, that 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 doctors, nurses and other professionals who upon learning that I’m Deaf and legally blind, automatically assume I’m incapable of daily self-care. They’re surprised I actually have a Bachelor’s degree, am married with children and independent and don’t need a “caretaker.”

We are fully capable of understanding, and 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.

4. Don’t question our Deafness.

Many Deaf patients feel frustrated when doctors insist 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. Deaf people feel 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.

5. Respect Deaf parents.

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. If the child can hear, the medical staff starts communicating with the child instead of the parent. This may seem easier to deal with, but the child is still a child and does not understand the complexity of their medical needs. Children also don’t always relay the full information back to their Deaf parents, which is why they shouldn’t be used as interpreters.

Because of these frustrating experiences, Deaf patients may avoid seeking medical treatment, skip regular checkups and have an overall mistrust of the medical community. So to better serve your Deaf patients and comply with the law, simply use common sense, drop the stereotypical assumptions, and use these tips to create a positive environment.

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