Communication is a vital part of our daily lives that most of us take for granted. To be able to navigate one’s health care, one need access to communication in his or her native language. What happens when a patient is deaf and cannot hear?
There are an estimated 26 to 28 million people in the United States who can be classified as deaf or hard of hearing. This accounts for almost 10 percent of the population of the United States. Within this group, there is a subgroup that identifies itself as “Deaf,” with a capital “D,” to signify a cultural identity. Members of this community use American Sign Language (ASL) to communicate. Many health care professionals are unfamiliar with the communication needs of the Deaf and may be unaware that ASL is not identical to Standard English language. It has its own grammar and syntax. It may also be unknown that sign language is not universal.
Most hearing people are unaware of the roadblocks faced by people who are Deaf. Deaf patients have less access to health information and care than their hearing counterparts simply because they cannot access auditory information. Health care professionals should be aware that language is the most crucial component in receiving and rendering medical care.
Although it is against the law to refuse access to sign language interpreters for medical appointments, more than 50 percent of physicians who have Deaf patients do not provide access to a sign language interpreter. Consequently, these patients experience greater difficulties in expressing themselves, and they are often misunderstood, misdiagnosed and do not receive life-saving health information.
Unlike other limited English proficiency communities, 90 percent of Deaf children are born to hearing parents, the majority of which never learn to sign, limiting effective communication at home. Hearing children in hearing families are privy to the sharing of family medical information because everyone speaks the same language at home. This language gap leads to many Deaf individuals not knowing or misunderstanding their own personal or family medical histories.
Hearing people take for granted access to auditory incidental learning acquired by having the ability to hear. Sadly, many Deaf adults have low health literacy resulting from a lifetime of limited access to health information.
Danielle Davoli is currently a coordinator of the Deaf Health Services Department for the North Shore-LIJ Health System. She is one of the co-founders of the Interpreters in Healthcare Member Section and is a graduate of Northeastern University’s ASL/English Interpreting program (B.S. 2003). She has worked as a staff interpreter at Helen Keller National Center and has experience working as an advanced EMT-CC and a firefighter in her local fire department. Most recently, she has a masters degree from Boston University (2014) in Health Communication and is currently working on research regarding health literacy within the Deaf community.