Medical Student Aims to Increase Health Professionals’ Understanding of Deaf Patients
My interests in Deaf culture and American Sign Language (ASL) began in middle school. One of my friends was the hearing child of two Deaf parents. She complained about how she hated when her mom yelled at her in ASL for not doing her chores. That image sparked a fascination with cognition, language perception and cultural identity in Deaf communities.
I studied neuroscience and linguistics as an undergraduate, focusing on childhood language acquisition and bilingualism. While my parents and I spoke multiple languages at home, I wanted to add ASL to this list.
As part of my Humanities Scholarly Inquiry project through the JeffMD Curriculum, I organized Deaf Education and Awareness for Medical Students (DEAFMed) this year. The co-curricular program aims to increase health professionals’ understanding of Deaf patients to improve the quality of their care. Deaf individuals face barriers to care and health literacy, largely due to communication errors and providers’ lack of awareness and understanding of their culture.
Deaf patients who use ASL as their primary communication method have a lower level of health literacy due to a lack of healthcare materials in their language. This manifests as worse health outcomes across various specialties. For example, Deaf patients tend to more likely use the emergency department than hearing patients.
From conversations with Deaf teachers and peers, I began to see how deafness as a cultural and linguistic minority often was misunderstood as a physical disability or medical problem. Coming to medical school in a city with a thriving Deaf population, I wanted to expose myself and my classmates to a different way of thinking about and interacting with this group.
Jefferson’s Humanities track enabled me to make DEAFMed what it is—an exploration into the cultural, linguistic, historical and artistic facets of deafness and ASL. Philadelphia-area Deaf professionals and disabilities studies professors present lectures on Deaf culture and community, history, medical ASL and popular conceptions of Deaf art, music and media. The lectures are available to all health professions students and Jefferson clinicians.
Ultimately, I hope trainees and clinicians who participate in DEAFMed will come away with a deeper understanding of this cultural minority. Furthermore, I hope participants can use this knowledge to improve provider and patient experiences when working with the Deaf.
Natalie Perlov is a second-year student at Sidney Kimmel Medical College.