A Broken System.

I’ve written about dealing with inadequate hospital accommodations. Most anyone in the Deaf world knows that last-minute interpreting requests are tricky, at best, to accommodate, especially with specialized medical appointments.

I happen to know Christopher Rawlings from my UW-Milwaukee days. He has three children whom he adores. Recently, his oldest daughter went in for surgery; and later on suffered life-threatening complications that required a stay in the ICU. She’s doing better now. However: someone at the hospital seriously dropped the ball on this one, because at no point– save for a one-hour block after the crisis had died down– did the hospital secure a professional, in-person sign language interpreter for Chris, despite all his efforts to arrange one.

Here’s the story in his own words, after which I will proceed to dissect where the hospital fucked up– and yes, this situation warrants the f-bomb on what is normally a fairly family-friendly blog, because his kid almost died. Watch on and try not to rage, because this happens far too often in the d/hh world, and we really, seriously need workable solutions for hospitals, interpreting agencies, and deaf clients here.


Now, the promised reaming.

  1. This wasn’t an emergency or a walk-in. The hospital had time to prepare. Chris requested an interpreter well in advance– an in-person interpreter, specifically not a Video Remote Interpreter (VRI).
  2. He followed up three times– three!– to ensure that his request would be met. No dice.
  3. Instead of a live interpreter, the hospital consistently provided a VRI machine that took time to set up, biting into valuable communication access for Chris while the rest of the room exchanged vital information about his daughter’s state and care; and regularly shut down without warning. 
    1. Now, VRIs can work, sometimes and in some situations. However, in this case, it wasn’t even close to enough for high-risk procedures nor highly-charged emergencies, much less one that involved multiple speakers. Chris covers a bit of the difference at 10:30 -“I couldn’t care less about nurses checking in for this or that — the VRI system is enough. But anything that involves my daughter’s doctors and her prognosis? I NEED a live, in-person, ASL interpreter!”
    2. VRIs run on high-speed Internet access, so having a good connection is vital– and often lacking, as happened hereWhen Chris brought this up at 11:05, their solution was to provide two VRI units.
  4. The hospital had time, during what turned out to be a 9-hour wait for his daughter’s initial surgery to finish, to contact several state agencies for an interpreter.
  5. The staff tried to recruit his wife, ex-wife (mother to the daughter), and his 14-year-old daughter– the patient— as interpreters. OK, it’s bad enough that they tried to ask the mother, then the wife, to interpret. Emotional investment, lack of impartiality, lack of expertise, etc., etc.– but the daughter?! A minor?! Who was also the patient?!
  6. When they did send an interpreter, they sent a Spanish one– twice.

    Spanish.For a deaf man who uses American Sign Language. And whose family members all use spoken English.

There is more, but you get the idea. Someone dropped the ball, enormously, and kept dropping it throughout. This wasn’t an understaffed rural hospital; Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin is located in Milwaukee with decent-to-excellent national rankings in several fields. These people should know better. While Chris’s experience is one of the more egregious examples I’ve seen to date, stories like his are depressingly common in the d/hh world. Now, I don’t like to jump on the outrage train without looking into solutions. Chris is right; the system is broken and it needs to be fixed. But how?

I don’t have answers yet. I do have some specific questions to start off with. First, what can hospitals and interpreting agencies do in advance to prepare for and address situations like this, especially last-minute or emergency requests? Can a partnership be set up with local agencies where interpreters agree to be “on call” (much like nurses)? Can agencies or advocacy centers reach out to the relevant authority at hospitals to educate them? How feasible is it for a hospital to have a staff interpreter on retainer? How do they manage it with other language interpreters (e.g., Spanish)? Which hospitals do it right, and how do they pull it off?

If you know me, you know I’m spamming all the relevant friends I have for answers on this. And hopefully soon enough I’ll have a new post with answers beyond “He should sue!” (I think he should.) and “They’re breaking the law!” (They are.) What Chris went through was the aftermath of someone’s else’s fuck-up. What can local agencies, hospitals, and deaf clients do beforehand to ensure that they don’t run into more fuck-ups?

Ching-Chong Cued Speech Chang

The Deaf community takes up arms, and rightly so, when a celebrity or comedian mimics gibberish ASL. Latest offender: Jamie Foxx on the Jimmy Fallon show. Others include Chelsea Handler, Cecily Strong, and pretty much any SNL show to do with sign language.

Now, I consider myself a hard person to offend. Gibberish ASL has made the rounds so often by now that I just consider it a cheap shot, comparable to putting on horn-rimmed glasses, fake buck teeth, and chattering out a “chinky chinky Chinaman” routine. It’s been done to death, it’s connected to negative and insulting stereotypes, and it’s nothing like the original language or culture, so it doesn’t even make enough sense to be funny.

In other words, it’s pulling random gestures out of one’s ass. It’s lazy, tacky, and trite. Hearing comedians can be bad enough about this; you’d think Deaf comedians would know better.

You’d think. If you don’t have three minutes to spare, skip right on to 2:10.

Now, the joke itself starts out OK. The driver decides to weasel out of a speeding ticket by pretending that he knows Cued Speech– so of course, he bungles it up, thinking the cop won’t know better. The cop recognizes the driver’s attempts at Cued Speech, holds up his finger, and returns to his squad car…

…and takes out a paper with cue words printed on it, replying with his own version of cue gibberish.

OK. A few things to say here.

  1. Remember, this is at Gallaudet. The only university for the Deaf in the world, one that hosts a multitude of sign languages from all over the worlds. It is, in fact, the birthplace of Cued Speech, with a vibrant Cued Speech community in the DC, Virginia, West Virginia, and Maryland area. How hard would it have been to find someone who knew Cued Speech to play as the policeman, or even to have the policeman flag down someone who happened to know both ASL and Cued Speech?
  2. He couldn’t at least have mouthed with the cues? That’s how Cued Speech works– it clarifies lipreading. There is no Cued Speech without lipreading!
  3. What’s up with the paper? It’s not… you can’t just cue right off a sheet of paper without knowing Cued Speech already. Yes, I talk about how you can learn the system off a sheet of paper in a weekend… but that doesn’t mean you can start cueing fluently right off the bat. Again, I think the video would have worked much better if the policeman started cueing fluently, and/or called in someone who knew Cued Speech.

I don’t know if the original author intended to insult Cued Speech. I don’t think so; my impression is that Cued Speech was a handy option for tricking a policeman who most likely only knew sign language. To be honest, I was glad to see Cued Speech getting recognition at Gallaudet! Unfortunately, making up random cues, instead of taking the time to reproduce a reasonably accurate version, cheapened the humor for me.



On a more positive note, this is one of the very few sign language parody videos I actually liked. At risk of ruining the humor by overanalyzing it: first, her “signs” actually have some relation to what she’s trying to say, so part of the fun is seeing how she acts out several concepts. This requires effort and on-the-spot thinking. In fact, a lot of deaf comedy acts incorporate this element; they try to “sign” without actually signing. Second, while the video pokes fun at both the interpreter and the mayor– especially on the Spanish bit– it isn’t insulting or demeaning to the broader d/hh community (at least, I don’t think). While its execution isn’t perfect, I’d say they got the idea on this one right.

The Horror of Cochlear Implants, Part 2

While I was visiting family in Wisconsin last winter, I went to a Deaf gathering at a local pub to reconnect with an old Deaf professor. I wound up at a side table with 5-6 older d/hh people near the entrance. At some point, a family walked in with a young teenage girl who had a cochlear implant. And the table fell silent. I mean, emphasis on “fell”: signing hands went down, and eyes went to her head. One woman signed, “She has a cochlear implant.” Another woman put up her hands and looked to the side: “no comment.”

Traditionally, the Deaf community– at least the older generations, in my experience– has been pretty staunchly anti-cochlear implants. In the past 20-30 years, that overall view has softened to this: Cochlear implants are OK for adults who choose to get it, but don’t implant children before they’re old enough to decide for themselves– and certainly never implant infants. What about the health risks? What if the kid grows up to resent it? I’ve seen some Deaf publications go so far as to call it cultural genocide.

I won’t go into the risks, which are vanishingly minor, by the way– we’re talking a fraction of 1% rate of complications, period; not deaths, all complications. What I will discuss is the preconception that implanting a child before s/he’s old enough to consent (whatever age that is) will incur resentment against her parents and an identity crisis.

Sample size of one, but: I was implanted when I was ten. I was certainly old enough to ask if I wanted it, but for whatever reason, my parents never did. That wasn’t really the way things worked in our household; what Mom and Dad said was Law, and we kids went along.

I have never once regretted the implant, nor resented them for not discussing it with me first. Hell, ten-year-old me thought having a metal bit that mysteriously stuck on my head like magic was pretty cool. (I’m not sure how much I understood about magnets back then.)

The thing is, I knew my parents loved me and wanted the best for me. And I knew the implant was a result of that. I think that’s what made the difference, not some vague and ill-defined idea of consent. It’s a tiny bit of metal. It doesn’t change anything about who I am. How could it?

I have never, not once, heard another cochlear implantee speak negatively about her implant. I’m sure they’re out there, but I haven’t heard it yet– and believe me, I’ve asked. The worst feedback I’ve heard on cochlear implants has been neutral: “Oh yeah, I just don’t use it anymore.” Most has been positive. The criticism and concerns I hear almost always come from an unimplanted person. And damn near every one of them has a friend, or a friend of a friend, who got a cochlear implant and hated it. (After a while, I began to suspect that their “friends” were one person that everyone knew.)

More than that, though, I’d read accounts of cochlear implantees being rejected or teased by their d/hh peers as soon as they got the implant. And that was touted as an example of how implantation could cause an identity crisis, a reason to not implant your children.

Um, excuse me? If your friends ditch you over something like that, the cochlear implant isn’t the problem, and you need better friends.

Hearing Impaired = Broken?

Last week, I bought a giant canvas. It did not fit in my car. I spent the next hour or so texting local friends trying to find someone with a jeep or a truck, contemplating the logistics of strapping it to the top of my car, and snarking about it on Facebook.

Batman would not have made this mistake.

behold. my l33t planning skillz.

What on earth does any of this have to do with “hearing impaired”?

Well, I ended up asking the store to hold the canvas until I could get someone with a bigger car. I came back the next day after work to ask the staff if there was a way we could take the canvas apart so it could fit. When we walked to the front of the store, where the canvas was sitting behind the counter, I spotted a note taped to it that read:


My first thought: “Yay! They left a note so they know I’m the one who bought it!” I didn’t think to say anything until after a very nice and accommodating store representative helped me try to fit the Giant Canvas into my car. When both of us gave up and agreed that I needed a bigger car, I walked back inside, motioned for a pen and paper, and wrote:

“I saw that the note on the canvas [now gone] said ‘hearing impaired.’ I just wanted to warn your staff that many d/hh people find that term very offensive. I don’t personally care, but some people do, a lot.”

The very nice and accommodating store representative apologized– from her gestures, I could tell she knew a little sign and was familiar with Deaf culture– and explained that she had taken down the note for that very reason before we’d carried the canvas out to my car. I reassured her that it didn’t matter to me; I just didn’t want them to have a bad run-in with other d/hh people because of an innocent slip.

The term “hearing impaired” has never bothered me. I used it growing up because I saw it as an useful umbrella term that encompassed all varying degrees of hearing loss. It wasn’t until I took ASL classes in college that I learned its secondary implication for many d/hh people: the idea that we’re broken and/or need to be fixed.

I don’t quite agree with that definition of “impaired,” by the way; I interpret “impaired” as more like “lacking.” You just don’t have a particular thing– or you don’t have as much of it as others do– that doesn’t have to mean it’s broken, or that you are broken. There’s no value judgment in it for me.

I do understand why other d/hh people interpret it that way, though. And I understand the larger picture it can reinforce. What I don’t understand is the level of ire it seems to generate sometimes, particularly when the hearing person who uses that term has no reason to know that it’s offensive to some d/hh people, or why it would be offensive. The thing is, unless you’ve spent some time around the d/hh community (and even then, a somewhat specific segment of that community), you won’t know. And to add to that, to the uninitiated, often “hearing impaired” does sound like the more polite, PC term to use.

Basically, 99% of the time, when someone uses that term, it’s not meant to be hurtful or offensive. It’s generally other d/hh people who use it as a pejorative (“signing impaired,” anyone?), and who object to its use.

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t ask people not to refer to us as “hearing impaired,” or educate them about its implications. Words have power. We would do well to be aware of that, and to respect it. At the same time, should it be taken as an insult if the intent isn’t there, if you have to contrive meaning out of it to turn it into an insult? And how far do we want to go into policing the terms that others can use, especially if other d/hh people use “hearing impaired” to identify themselves?