Last thing you remember, you were walking down the street; now you are lying in a hospital bed. The lights are so bright, you can barely see, and your whole body is in pain. You try asking for assistance, but none of the medical staff can understand you, because none of them communicate by using ASL. They hand you some paperwork and ask you to write your questions on a note pad, but all you want is a conversation. What happened to you? How did you get here? What are you supposed to do now?
Sadly, situations like this are more common than one might expect. Despite the American with Disabilities Act (ADA) requirements that interpreters be provided in medical settings, often this provision comes too little too late. Sometimes, as in the case of Matt Dixon ( See Link here ), the provisions are never made, and the deaf patient is left shouldering the responsibility of finding an interpreter. That is when Children Of Deaf Adults (CODAs) feel obligated to assume a role hearing society has expected them to play their whole lives. CODAs frequently become interpreters for their deaf family members, however unwillingly, simply because they are there.
As eager as a CODA might be to step up to help their family member, they often lack the medical, technical, or legal knowledge to deliver the news they are being asked to deliver. Medical professionals learn to explain diagnoses in a sensitive manner, because the terminology is complex, and often you are receiving very emotional news. Police and civil servants are trained to communicate with frightened or confused victims. CODAs are generally not equipped to explain medication regimens or legal charges to a family member, especially in a crisis situation. They should not be expected to provide this service simply because they are bilingual.
Years ago, I attended a medical appointment with my deaf mother. She was referred by her doctor to a specialist near our home. The receptionist called over to make the appointment, but was told that they did not provide an interpreter at that facility, and she referred my mother to a specialist on the other side of town who did accommodate deaf patients. Looking back, I feel so angry about this situation because everyone acted like it was ok for a medical specialist to not accommodate deaf patients. My mother had to travel across town just to see a specialist when there was an office within 2 miles of our home. I wish I could call this discrimination a thing of the past, but those within the deaf community know that certain facilities are more accessible than others. This is not equal access.
I find it unfortunate that the deaf, and families of deaf individuals, are left bearing the burden of communication in crisis situations. It’s hard for CODAs to be assertive and insist that a medical interpreter be provided when their parent is sitting there anxiously awaiting their diagnosis. It is challenging to push against the broken system to fight for the rights you are legally entitled to, when all you feel is afraid and vulnerable.
It’s not fair that deaf individuals and CODAs have to assertively request interpreters, but it’s the only way change will ever happen. Don’t let organizations that fall under ADA oversight tell you that they won’t accommodate you– ever! Requesting an interpreter in every public instance you are entitled to one will go a long way in letting institutions know that the demand is there. While it might seem inconvenient at the time, you may be preventing the next deaf individual from having to go through the hassle, effectively paying the equal access forward. If you are not deaf, but want to help be part of the solution, ask around and see what provisions your organization has for equal access. If there are none, push for them! Deaf, CODAs, interpreters, and allies of the Deaf need to work together to change the system from the inside out. With nearly 1 in 10 people in the United States living with some level of hearing loss, it’s time we all stop being silent about Deaf rights.