Sign language in Worldwide Medicine

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Understanding and being understood by one’s doctor: this seems a fundamental human right, even more so for someone in need of treatment, someone tired or anxious. It however remains out of reach for part of the population: the deaf. They, who think and dream in images, are confronted by health systems that ignore their linguistic and cultural norms or background. A deaf person’s choice of language during consultation is not taken into account. The imposed language is written or oral. Thus, intolerable situations emerge.
An hearing 8-year-old child has to announce that he has cancer to his parents, a deaf couple. Deaf people suffering from insulin-dependent diabetes and forgotten by a deficient health system. This happens everywhere around the globe. In Africa, a deaf woman explains by gestures that she is pregnant and suffers from intolerable pain. Thought to be a beggar, she is thrown out of the hospital.
These situations rightly outrage, but once the scandal fades, deaf people return immediately to invisibility. This lack of respect for the individual leads to late diagnosis and incorrect administration of the prescription by the deaf patient. The few existing studies show a silent minority lacking appropriate medical treatment and, in times of epidemics, left without information or, in some countries, without any access to treatment.
Yet sign language, cheaper than some sophisticated technologies, immediately makes treatment available. Of the 70 billion deaf people living worldwide, a few dozen thousands already benefit from it through interpreter services and/or specific medical spaces where nursing staff, deaf intermediaries and social workers communicate in sign language. In Europe, Central and South America, these new bonds create hope amongst the deaf community. Nursing staff can develop a visual thinking process to explain medical concepts. This visual-gestural communication could also benefit other patients.
Some treatments for meningitis or resilient forms of tuberculosis save lives but provoke secondary deafness. Sign language also attracts many newly deaf individuals who wish to defeat their social isolation.
No international framework specifically addresses deaf people’s equality in medical care access. However, the International Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities took a first legal step by stipulating that any confidentiality breach is discriminatory.
In France, HIV positive deaf people refused to consult doctors due to the obligation of doing so with a family member. This led to the opening of the pilot-consultation at the Salpêtrière in 1995.
Building on this legal argument of non-discrimination, which dozens of countries have now ratified, and on the records of sign language consultations already installed, we ask that the choice be given for the use of sign language in a medical context worldwide. It would represent social progress for millions of deaf people as well as a response to health emergencies in disaster affected countries.
(advocacy from Sources - mail : sourcesls20@gmail.com site : sign-care.info)



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