My nervous partner Eric loudly and with exaggeration asked the patient, “CAN. YOU. READ. MY. LIPS?”
The Deaf patient replied, “No. I. CAN'T. READ. YOUR. LIPS.” The humor was lost on Eric as he relayed the patient’s limitations to me.
“Really?" I melodramatically replied. “I thought all Deaf inhabitants could visually convert external orifice configurations into meaningful linguistic interpretation.” The patient and I exchanged a brief grin.
“Now what are we going to do?” Eric was too nervous to notice my admiration for the patient’s cunning intellect. “I don’t know sign language,” he whined.
“Sure you do,” I deadpanned. “Show him your middle finger and see what happens.”
“Hey, I’m serious!” Eric blurted.
“How do you even know he uses sign language to communicate?” I questioned.
“Well, duh,” he asserted while confidently turning toward the patient with an affirming thumbs-up gesture. The patient returned the signal, mimicking my partner’s excessive body language and facial expressions.
Giving a satirical wink to the patient, I told Eric, “With pen and paper, ask the patient what method he would prefer to use when communicating with him.” With a deadpan expression the patient quickly jotted down one word and handed it back to Eric. “Brail.”
Poor Eric. He was a part-time newly licensed EMT who was not privy to the fact that I had once been a teacher for the Deaf and hard of hearing (D&HH) before I was naively drawn to EMS. Not that I volunteered that information to Eric, mind you, The patient was quite stable, and I wanted to see how Eric would handle this situation.
As it turns out, the Deaf patient’s primary means of communication was indeed sign language. Fortunately for Eric, the patient was trying to integrate humor to put Eric at ease. Unfortunately, Eric proceeded to tell me, not the patient, that he could not treat the patient until an interpreter arrived. It was at that moment our patient afforded Eric an unsolicited lesson in sign language, involving anatomical parts being placed in other anatomical locations usually not reserved for cohabitation. And believe me, knowledge of sign language was not required to get the gist.
Stretching my fingers, I then took on the role of interpreter for both Eric and the patient. “Telling you that I am Deaf does not mean ‘Don’t communicate with me,’” signed the patient. This was punctuated with another sign for incorporating unsolicited body segments. Continuing, our patient stopped signing and reverted to using his intelligible speech. “It’s not how you exchange ideas, but that you do.”
Our patient apologized to Eric for the choice of signs he used to accentuate his passion for treating the D&HH with the same dignity and equality afforded everyone else. My partner in turn apologized and requested some helpful communication tips.
Here’s what he learned:
1. Don’t yell. You just look silly, and it draws unnecessary attention.
2. If the individual who is D&HH prefers to lip-read, speak clearly and don’t over enunciate. More unnecessary silliness.
3. If the patient requests an interpreter, request through dispatch that the hospital destination contact one before you leave the scene.
4. Speak directly to the individual and not the interpreter.
5. Protect the individual’s rights by only using bystander interpreters whom the patient agrees to have present.
6. Make sure you have the attention of the person, but don’t wildly wave your hands or stomp your feet to draw their attention. Now you really look silly.
7. Use direct and to-the-point short sentences when using writing as a means of communication. This saves time.
8. Don’t be afraid to be animated. Any signing is better than no signing. Gestures work well.
9. English is typically the Deaf person’s second language with different rules for grammar and syntax.
10. Hearing aids don’t work well in loud environments.
11. Never use the term “Deaf and dumb” unless you want to see more signs related to incompatible organs.
From an EMS perspective, I offer the following suggestions:
1. Spinal immobilization and C-collars by themselves significantly reduce the visual periphery of the D&HH.
2. Take out the individual’s hearing aids if you spinal immobilize them. Don’t lose them, either. They’re veeeery expensive.
3. Don’t wear gloves when you sign. Otherwise you’re mumbling. Just kidding.
4. Don’t expect a patient who is D&HH to lip-read when the light is poor or the sun is in their eyes. Oh, and don’t wear a mask. Now that is silliness at an awesome level.
5. Wash your hands before you sign as you don’t want to talk dirty. Just kidding again.
6. Yelling “clear” with multiple hearing-impaired persons on scene could have negative consequences. Ha. I crack myself up.
7. Be aware a professional interpreter will sign everything they hear in the presence of the D&HH. That includes auditory flatulence (Not really necessary in my opinion as their olfactory system is still intact).
Until next time, remember that kindness is the language the Deaf can hear and the blind can see.