Increasing Deaf Communication Worldwide


The importance of effective communication throughout all aspects of life is indisputable. Facility in a foreign language has long been a measure of willingness to be inclusive, to look beyond one’s native borders, to be involved in the world. Acquiring a foreign language is enthusiastically received in most cultures and essential in many.

While foreign language studies almost universally focus on spoken language, enthusiasm for the process is not limited to the hearing. A recent survey found that deaf students also are interested in learning foreign sign languages. [Parton, B.S. (2014). Facilitating exposure to sign languages of the world: The case for mobile assisted language learning. Journal of Information Technology Education: Innovations in Practice, 13, 13-24.] Research in the area clearly shows, however, that opportunities to study foreign sign language are severely limited or, as some would say, effectively nonexistent.

How can this void be addressed? What public policies must be expanded and what resources are available to promote the venture? The various approaches to these questions will be the topic of future discussion. We encourage you to join in the dialogue.

Sign language around the world

International deaf communities around the world have their own sign languages, cultures and organizations. As would be expected, the economics and social norms of a particular country affect the extent and nature of the services and opportunities available.

Latin America is a prime example of the cultural range among deaf communities outside the US. Argentina, Brazil, Mexico and Peru each have their own sign language and deaf associations, but Peru, smaller and less affluent than its neighbors offers fewer and more limited accommodations and services. In Europe, Germany has a number of deaf Web sites, something not found everywhere on the continent. China, with a substantial deaf community, boasts its own technical college for the deaf.
In many instances, the communication enhancements and alternatives that are publicly available are insufficient or just as likely unknown to the educators, public and private employers, community organizers, professionals and other providers operating abroad who then find themselves in need of an interpreter.

Deafness is International.


Around the world, international deaf communities have their own sign languages, culture and organizations. Businesses and other organizations operating internationally and faced with a need for interpreters can turn to Sign Language USA (SLUSA) for talented, professional, highly qualified and/or certified sign language and foreign language interpreters. SLUSA offers interpreters in the following languages: Japanese, Farsi, Italian, Arabic, Vietnamese, Chinese, Russian, Hebrew, and Spanish. Additional languages also can be accommodated.
At the same time that sign language is expanding internationally, appreciation for the utility of American Sign Language in the U.S. has grown, as it becomes increasingly popular as a foreign language. A number of states have passed legislation allowing American Sign Language to be accepted as foreign language requirements in post-secondary education settings. Many states also offer American Sign Language in elementary and secondary schools, though the decision to offer foreign language-educational credit for the option usually is made on a case-by-case basis by individual school districts.

Avatars Expand Internet Access for the Deaf

Computer scientists from Saarbrucken in Germany have developed an approach where animated online characters display content in sign language. Researchers Alexis Heloir and Fabrizio Nunnari, working with Peter Schaar, a lecturer for German sign language at the Saarland University Language Center and the College of Engineering and commerce in Saarbrucken, have created avatars that make accentuated movements. While avatars have been seen as a means to expand communication to the deaf, the researchers found that simply animating them to resemble human beings didn’t provide the greater variety of emotional expressions that humans need to effectively communicate.

To capture the motions of deaf people, the scientists use affordable cameras and sensors, making the process inexpensive and easy to use. A computing method then transfers the movements of the entire body onto the avatar. The long-term goal is to create a collection of short sign language sequences that can be used by the deaf to interact on the Web. Animated characters could also be used to provide information quickly in cases where there is no interpreter, for example, in public forums such as train stations and airports.
[ScienceDaily, August 2014]

When is an interpreter required in a hospital setting?

Under the ADA, whenever patients, their family members, companions, or members of the public are interacting with hospital staff, the hospital is obligated to provide effective communication. Situations where an interpreter may be required include:
• Discussing a patient’s symptoms and medical condition, medications, and medical history
• Explaining and describing medical conditions, tests, treatment options, medications, surgery and other procedures
• Providing a diagnosis, prognosis, and recommendation for treatment
• Obtaining informed consent for treatment
• Communicating with a patient during treatment, testing procedures, and during physician’s rounds
• Providing instructions for medications, post-treatment activities, and follow-up treatments
• Providing mental health services, including group or individual therapy, or counseling for patients and family members
• Providing information about blood or organ donations
• Explaining living wills and powers of attorney
• Discussing complex billing or insurance matters
• Making educational presentations, such as birthing and new parent classed, nutrition and weight management counseling, and CPR and first aid training

Communicating with people who are deaf or hard-of-hearing in hospital settings


The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires hospitals to provide effective means of communication for patients, family members, and hospital visitors who are deaf or hard of hearing. Wherever patients, their family members, companions, or members of the public are interacting with hospital staff, the hospital is obligated to provide effective communication.
The Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice, interpreting the ADA, discusses these obligations and offers the following guidelines for complying with the law:

1. The ADA applies to all hospital programs and services. This includes emergency room care, inpatient and outpatient surgery, clinics, educational classes, and cafeteria and gift shop services.
2. The simpler the interaction, the less complicated the required accommodation. For example, exchanging written notes or pointing to items for purchase can be effective communication for brief face-to-face conversations, such as a visitor’s inquiry about a patient’s room number or a gift shop purchase.
3. Written forms or information sheets may be sufficient where there is little call for interactive communication, such as providing billing and insurance information or filling out admission forms and medical history inquiries.
4. Where the communications are more interactive and complicated, such as a patient’s discussion of symptoms with medical personnel, a physician’s presentation of diagnosis and treatment options to patients and family members, or group therapy session, it may be necessary to provide a qualified sign language interpreter or other interpreter, such as an oral interpreter, a cued-speech interpreter (essentially an oral interpreter using supplemental hand codes or cues), or computer-assisted real time transcription (CART).

Check back for examples of situations in hospital settings where an interpreter may be required.


New rules requiring text messaging providers to allow Americans to send a text to 911 to get help during an emergency have been adopted by the FCC. The rules were adopted to ensure that 911 keeps pace with changing technology by requiring all wireless providers and interconnected text providers to support text-to-911 by the end of 2014.
Texting has become a widely adopted communications tool and is the principal means by which many people with disabilities communicate. Text-to-911 can provide a lifesaving alternative for people who are deaf, hard of hearing, or who have a speech disability.
The Commission noted with disappointment that only four nationwide wireless carriers have made a voluntary commitment to support this emergency service. While the regulatory “see-saw” holds that if industry acts in the public interest, FCC involvement will be low, the Commission reiterated its duty to act if the public interest is not being served. In the words of FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, “no company can hang-up on 911.”
Some 911 call centers have already responded to the FCC’s encouragement to begin accepting texts, and it is expected that others will follow as providers develop text-to-911 capability. Nonetheless, it remains up to each 911 call center to decide whether and when to begin accepting texts.

The Use (or underuse) of Hearing Aids

Hearing loss is more common than many people think. An estimated 500 million experience hearing loss worldwide.
How many people use hearing aids? In the US (with a population of over 316 million in 2013), where nearly 10 percent of the population over the age of 3 years have hearing loss, only about 20 percent of those who could benefit from hearing aids actually use the devices.
In comparison, as of 2011 more than 10 million people in the UK, or 1 in 6, have some form of hearing loss. More than 6 million of this group would benefit from hearing aids, but only about 2 million actually have hearing aids, and only 1.4 million use them regularly.
Why don’t people wear hearing aids? Reasons typically cited include: they are uncomfortable; they whistle; they are not useful in a large crowd; wearing them results in over-stimulation or hearing overload; getting used to them takes effort; and the lack of support available to recipients after being given them.
In the US, increasing the rate of hearing aid usage was a Health & Human Services (HHS) Healthy People 2010 goal and continues as a Healthy People 2020 goal. Research supported by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD) has driven the development of hearing aids from their inception in the 1950s and remains, today, an ongoing priority for NIDCD.