Signs of Care
Blanchfield Army Community Hospital Offers FREE ASL Classes
When you’re dealing with any kind of medical issue—whether as a patient in the hospital or as one simply there for a doctor’s appointment—it’s important to be able to communicate with everyone handling your care. It’s already stressful enough just being there, so walking in and wondering whether or not someone will know how to speak your language, even at the most basic level, is an added anxiety that no one should have to face. And while many people reading this would automatically assume that the language barrier might present itself in the form of a spoken language like Spanish or French or Italian, it’s the unspoken—and the unheard—language of sign that is recently being given a focus that has so long been missing in hospitals throughout the U.S.
Granted, the law requires that an interpreter certified in healthcare interpreting is available for patients who are deaf or hard of hearing, but a majority of hospitals and health organizations traditionally use an outside provider for video remote interpreting (VRI) when those services are needed. It serves the need, but what about all those other moments that happen before it actually gets to that point—the initial moments of the visit when you’re being greeted or checking in or even being asked what might be wrong?
For those moments, Blanchfield Army Community Hospital has begun doing something that many other hospitals should take note of and emulate: they’re offering free classes in American Sign Language to educate beneficiaries and staff members so that they can better communicate with deaf and hearing impaired patients when they come in for care.
“We initially started it with the staff to improve communication with our deaf and hard-of-hearing patients and the staff members we have here, but we also wanted the opportunity for our patients to join us, as well,” says BACH employee Nicole Fitzwater, who generously volunteers her time to organize the group and teach classes. For Fitzwater, the mission is a personal one, due to the fact that she is hearing impaired herself and uses a hearing aid. In college, she studied sign language and later used it to communicate with her son, who was hearing impaired as a child but underwent corrective surgery.
While she might no longer need it for communication with her son, Fitzwater still appreciates the need for sign language in her work, so she teamed up with two fellow Blanchfield employees—nurse Kelly Money and medical record technician Wendyann Deasis- Duboise—to offer the classes on a bi-monthly basis to those who wish to learn, in addition to using her time spent teaching as a way to maintain her own aptitude for the language. “It’s one of those skills that if you don’t use it, you lose it. I wanted to stay current with ASL and bring that here to our patients,” Fitzwater explains.
Deasis-Duboise has a personal connection to the need for ASL education in healthcare, as well, as she was born with a severe hearing impairment after her mother contracted Rubella during the course of her pregnancy.
“I first learned how to sign when I was a baby, but I mostly read lips,” Deasis-Duboise says. Overcoming her disability and communicating more easily with the hearing world also meant taking speech therapy in school to help clarify her speech, and Deasis-Duboise sees the opportunity to teach ASL classes at the hospital as a way to help bridge the gap between patients who struggle the way she has and the staff who are there to help them during their time in care. “The three of us love to teach ASL class at the hospital,” she says. “The people are great, and the environment is friendly and open to teaching.”
Unlike Fitzwater and Deasis-Duboise, Money didn’t have a personal need for ASL but took it as a college course to complete her credit requirements. After learning it, it became a passion that deepened further during her time on staff at Evans Army Community Hospital at Fort Carson, Colorado, where she befriended three deaf coworkers and began practicing and improving her ASL.
“They were extremely welcoming and grateful that I was even attempting to learn to sign to communicate with them,” Money says. From there, her love for the language became something that she carried through in teaching it to her son, and offering the classes at Blanchfield has given her a way to use her knowledge on a wider level to make a difference in some of the very moments when communicating can matter most.
“What we’re doing here is teaching the basic communication because we want our staff to be comfortable speaking with patients who are deaf and hard of hearing and to be able to say hello, to tell them their name, to tell them that it’s nice to meet them and welcome them to our facility,” Fitzwater explains. “We also want to be able to tell our patients through sign that we have the VRI and will be using it so they can get the video interpreting.”
Even the most basic words can hold so much comfort, so much reassurance that their care is in the hands of people with heart; and for the deaf and hearing impaired, these three women are doing something that means more than any spoken words could ever express.
ASL classes at Blanchfield Army Community Hospital meets at noon on the first Monday and third Tuesday of each month. For more information, follow www.facebook.com/BACH.Fort.Campbell/.