By: Hannah Heitz
Those who are deaf or hard of hearing make up an estimated 10 million individuals within the US, which is one out of every twenty individuals. In contrast to the focus on cultural awareness across ethnic lines, deafness is seen as a condition, a disability. There is great diversity within this community; some are born deaf, some lose hearing, and some are hard of hearing. Each group has a very different set of cultural norms, preferences, and expectations, although most medical practitioners simply categorize the population holistically as deaf or hearing impaired.
Psychiatric concerns, such as anxiety and depression, affects approximately 40% of those who are deaf compared to the 25% in hearing populations. Studies have found that this higher rate can be attributed to lack of adequate information, poor communication, uninformed consent and unethical behavior, treatment avoidance, and inadequacies in previous experience. Although healthcare providers are legally obligated to provide equal access to care under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, this does not mean is it truly provided. Hospitals and providers are responsible for paying for interpretation services—services that are often reduced when cutting costs.
Although the current state of deaf healthcare is disheartening, there is a clear path toward progress. Cultural awareness training, increased dialogue between medical practitioners and the Deaf community, and improved communication are direct steps toward improving care. The Deaf Health Initiative (DHI) at John Hopkins aims to achieve these goals through increasing standards of care and cultural awareness not only in the healthcare setting, but also in the workplace and educational environments. For example, one DHI initiative involves making surgical masks clear. An individual who typically relies on lip reading is unable to communicate with medical practitioners wearing a surgical mask simply because the mask is opaque, and through this easy change the channel of communication is reopened. Beyond improving quality of care, DHI also aims to increase understanding between members of the hearing and non-hearing communities.
*Deaf, with a capital “D” refers to membership of the Deaf cultural group, whereas deaf with a lowercase ‘d’ refers to the presence of hearing impairment.
A special thanks to Rachel Kolb, a student at Laney Graduate School, for her assistance with the creation of this article.
1: Kuenburg, A., Fellinger, P., & Fellinger, J. (2016). Health Care Access Among Deaf People. Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, 21(1), 1-10.
2: Richardson, K. J. (2014). Deaf culture: Competencies and best practices.The Nurse Practitioner, 39(5), 20-28.