Article written by Mark Wheatley, Executive Director of the European Union of the Deaf (EUD)
Under the Article 9 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), state parties to the Convention, including all the EU Members States, are legally obligated to ensure the accessibility for persons with disabilities. For deaf persons
Article 25 of the CRPD outlines the legal obligation of state parties to protect persons’ with disabilities right to health without discrimination. However, deaf persons in the EU face plenty of barriers when exercising their right to accessibility in healthcare. This article will focus on three crucial barriers for deaf people in the healthcare sector: (i) the lack of accessibility in national sign languages, (ii) the lack of awareness and training for healthcare professionals and (iii) the barriers related to the pandemic.
Deaf people who communicate in a national sign language often face barriers as almost always healthcare staff do not communicate in a sign language and need to use an interpreter. Therefore, they are unable to receive information in their mother tongue and access the information they need directly through the healthcare professional to make health-related decisions. Deaf people often lack access to clear and efficient communication in the healthcare system, which deprives them from critical information and quality health care. If the healthcare professionals do not provide sign language interpreters to be present during consultations, deaf persons sometimes have to bring family members to interpret for them, and that is a considerable responsibility to cast on them. In addition to this, family members are not medically trained to explain medical diagnoses.
It is essential to highlight that there is the lack of healthcare services that are directly available in national sign languages. Having healthcare services available in national sign language would be highly beneficial and practical; for example, in the case of mental health services, how can deaf persons express their feelings through a sign language interpreter to their therapists? It is not conducive to communication for the patient and violates the patient’s right to privacy.
Another, barrier that the deaf community faces is the lack of training of healthcare professionals related to deaf awareness. Having the healthcare professional not possessing adequate knowledge about the deaf persons and their languages, can result in some severe implications for the life of a deaf individual. Most of the doctors or any other healthcare professionals are not trained how to communicate to and ensure reasonable accommodation for deaf person.
Furthermore, deaf people find it challenging to book an appointment unless they physically visit their doctor’s practice, also most of the time healthcare professionals do not automatically offer the opportunity to have an interpreter present when deaf people attend appointments. Sometimes, when a healthcare professional has not booked the interpreters, they offer to communicate using notes which is not acceptable as it’s not the same as receiving an information in a national sign language.
More recently, the barriers that deaf persons face have been further exacerbated during the COVID- 19 pandemic regarding communication access. The pandemic revealed gaps in communication in the health sector with many deaf and hard of hearing people in hospitals without consistent ways to communicate with doctors and staff. The lack of sign language interpreters and the use of masks create additional barriers for deaf persons. Masks reduce access to mouth movement and facial expression, leading to miscommunication and increasing feelings of frustration and isolation.
Deaf persons face inequalities in many healthcare services, and healthcare professionals need to possess knowledge how to ensure accessibility for the deaf patients and clients. Moreover, deaf persons face discrimination daily. Importantly when it comes to their health needs, they cannot afford any additional barriers and miscommunication. We have included recommendations to ensure barrier-free access to healthcare for deaf patients under Art 9 and 25 of the CRPD.
- Always ask how the patient would like to communicate and make a record for future appointments.
- Book quality Sign Language interpreters for consultations for deaf patients
- Set up a screen or other visible method of notifying patients rather than calling their names.
- Set up a simple system for booking interpreters and train staff to use this system.
- NEVER expect family members or unqualified staff to interpret for a deaf patient
About the European Union of the Deaf
Based in Brussels, Belgium, EUD is a not-for-profit European non-Governmental organisation (ENGO) whose members comprise of National Associations of the Deaf (NADs).