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Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing Patients Need More Inclusive Hospital Care

Earlier this month, WBTV released an article that told the story of a local woman’s efforts to advocate for multiple interpreting systems in hospitals to help serve the deaf community at a time when mandated mask-wearing has made it nearly impossible for those who are deaf or hard of hearing to read lips.

As a deaf content creator and advocate who has been talking about inaccessibility and ableism in the medical industry for years, this article resonated with me and made me want to share one of my experiences from 2013.

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One evening in October of that year, I was involved in a car accident when someone hit the back of my truck. Seven years ago, you couldn’t text 911 for emergencies as you can now, so I was worried about how I was going to communicate with the person who hit me, the police, and anyone else who might have gotten involved. As it turns out, I knew the person in front of me, whom I had hit as a result of getting hit myself. She was one of my neighbors and she called 911 for me.

It’s important to mention that, at this point in my life, I didn’t yet know any American Sign Language (ASL) except for the alphabet, and I could barely lip read, so I relied on the residual hearing I had. In serious situations like this, writing was essential.

The police and paramedics were the most accessible out of everyone. They wrote out questions to get my side of the story and pointed to questions on the medical forms. The paramedics used hand gestures to make sure I was comfortable in the ambulance. 

Things took a turn for the worse once I arrived at the hospital. Laying on the gurney with a rolled-up towel taped to each side of my head, multiple nurses approached me, each of them talking out loud no matter how many times I informed them I’m deaf and that they needed to either write their questions down or point to them on the paper. It wasn’t until I was at my wit’s end and literally started yelling that one of the nurses finally did what I asked.

My experience in the actual doctor’s room wasn’t any better, as he would refuse to write things down and often would talk with his back facing me. I was lucky the [hearing] friend I was supposed to meet with before the crash occurred showed up and was able to help me. She was getting frustrated with the doctor too.

Medical malpractices like this are extremely serious because one miscommunication can mean life or death. Switched At Birth, a TV show on Freeform about a deaf and a hearing child who were switched at birth, aired a scene depicting a deaf teenager, Natalie, in the hospital. Because the nurses didn’t have an interpreter available and refused to use written communication, the nurse almost gave Natalie medication that she was allergic to.

Incidents like this happen in real life. A deaf man died from end-stage kidney failure without knowing just how serious his condition was because the hospitals refused to provide interpreters. A pregnant deaf woman in Miami sued for interpreters after being denied them despite needing proper communication during birth as she was at high risk for high blood pressure and other complications.

It is not okay, and is very much against the law to deny equal access to communication to deaf people, especially in situations like these.

The Americans with Disabilities Act is 30 years old, yet it’s still being treated as if it doesn’t exist. The medical industry needs to do better, especially now during COVID, which has made a difficult experience even more so.

Medical staff need to listen to their deaf patients and do what is asked of them. They must type, write, or point to any questions on paper that they need answered. Higher-ups need to do this themselves, as well as remind their staff to do the same. It should be baked into the training.

There should be in-person ASL interpreters available at all times. Video remote interpreting (VRI) may sometimes be a backup or a last resort, but nothing can replace a human interpreter being there in person. If VRI must be used, all machines must be charged completely at all times, and internet connections should be kept at the highest level possible to prevent issues. 

In 2021, there cannot be any more excuses for not being able to communicate with all of your patients.

Read Rikki Poynter’s past columns here.


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