ASL Interpreters are essential

It is International Week of the Deaf, a time to raise global awareness about the Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing communities.

This is as good a time as any to say the following: If your organization interacts in any way with the Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing, and you are relying upon gestures or lip reading to communicate with them, then you are not meeting the needs of a community that is 48 million strong. It’s that simple.

All organizations that interact with the public should be aware of these communities and be prepared to communicate effectively. Here are a few important facts you should know:

1. Deafness Is More Common Than You Realize

Although the term “deaf” is often incorrectly used to refer to anyone with hearing challenges, it is usually defined as having very little or no functional hearing.

Each year, about two to three out of every 1,000 babies (more than 24,000 total) in the United States are born with a detectable level of hearing loss in one or both ears, according to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders.

And about 20 percent of all American adults (48 million) report some degree of hearing loss and would describe themselves as deaf or hard of hearing.

2. The Deaf Community Is More Vulnerable To Health Disparities

Research from the American Psychological Association has shown the Deaf community is less likely to have equal access to health information and medical care due to communication barriers. They tend to be less likely to access preventive care services and have worse cardiovascular health outcomes, for instance.

3. For Many, ASL Is The Primary Means of Communication

While not all people who are deaf use American Sign Language (ASL), it’s estimated that as many as 500,000 to 2 million do. Two million speakers would make ASL one of the five most-spoken languages in the U.S. For them, ASL is their primary means of understanding spoken words and communicating with others.

4. There Is No Appropriate Substitute For Qualified ASL Interpreters

Organizations should think of ASL as they would any other language. When you need to communicate with someone who speaks another language such as Spanish, you already know that using work-around tactics like gesturing does not work well. Not only is it potentially insulting, it also can be confusing and counterproductive. Just as you wouldn’t substitute these tactics for a qualified Spanish interpreter, you shouldn’t use them with someone who speaks ASL.

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5. Video Remote Interpreting Can Facilitate Effective ASL Interpreting

Having a qualified ASL interpreter on the premises is ideal. However, it can be difficult to find qualified ASL interpreters on demand, particularly in hospital settings and other emergency situations. Video remote interpreting (VRI) can meet patients’ needs by quickly connecting them with a qualified interpreter. The National Association of the Deaf still recommends using onsite ASL interpreters when possible but advocates using video remote interpreting as an alternative, provided it is high quality and reliable.

FREE GUIDE: Empowering Your Organization with Video Remote Interpreting

6. Provided It's Used Appropriately

As with any technology, VRI can have unintended consequences if not used with care.

The potential risks to patient and provider are apparent in Sunderland et al. v. Bethesda Hospital Inc., a case in which a top court recently ruled that a hospital’s improper use of video interpreting amounted to discrimination against deaf patients.

Providers need to follow best practices to ensure compliance when using video remote interpreting, including:

  • A dedicated high-speed internet connection and sufficient bandwidth
  • A screen that’s large enough and comfortably positioned to give the patient an unobstructed view
  • Spare equipment available
  • Privacy protocols in place

Additionally, providers should recognize that VRI is not appropriate in some situations, such as when a conversation involves multiple people or a patient has vision problems that would make it difficult to see a screen.

The Bottom Line

If you or your staff interacts with the Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing community (and odds are that you will) the only acceptable communication strategy is to work with a professional ASL interpreter. Do not rely on gesturing or lip reading.

Onsite interpreters can be supplemented with video remote interpreting, which provides reliable, on-demand access.

LanguageLine can help. To learn more about how onsite or video remote interpreting can help your organization communicate more effectively, please click here.

Video Remote Interpreting Guide