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April 2, 2004

Deaf Talkabout: Just what the doctor ordered

From: Belfast Telegraph, UK - Apr 2, 2004

By Bob McCollough

02 April 2004

SECOND year medical students from Queen's have been learning sign language and deaf awareness in a joint venture between the University and the RNID and I caught up with them during a class run by Bobby Bailie in Wilton House.

Just the day before this, the Secretary for State, Paul Murphy, speaking at a reception in Hillsborough Castle to mark the success of the European Year of people with disabilities, had announced that British and Irish sign language were now officially recognised in Northern Ireland and they were working in partnership with representatives of the deaf community to develop ideas for improving access to public services.

It's hard to think of a public service more in need of access than that of doctors in either private practice or hospital and I told the students it would be great if they could learn a few simple signs such as 'good morning' and 'how do you feel' when meeting deaf patients for the first time.

Eye contact is the main difference between deaf and hearing culture and it would help enormously if the deaf person could see that the doctor was aware of the communication problem and was prepared to make the first step. This would work even if the patient was a hearing aid user and depended on lip reading.

In the bad old days, deaf people seeing the doctor would bring a relative (or even their own hearing children) to act as go-between and this is all changed now we have a professional interpreter service free of charge to deaf patients.

Doctors themselves warmly welcome this as there has always been the fear of mistaken diagnosis through faulty communication and, in the present climate of exorbitant litigation claims, this is understandable.

Bobby told the class that when he was a schoolboy at the old deaf school on the Lisburn Road, there were as many as 300 pupils and they had their own troops of scouts and girl guides as well as football and hockey teams.

The numbers are much smaller now at the present school at Jordanstown and deaf school children are spread out around the province in hearing-impaired classes in mainstream schools.

Like many deaf people, and I fully agree with him, Bobby feels that the teaching of language is more important than the teaching of speech and that profoundly deaf children need sign language to overcome any ambiguity resulting from imperfect communication. We talked about the many physical signs used by referees in rugby matches as an example of this.

But methods of communication have changed and, in many schools, sign language is no longer the preferred medium and some pupils have become accustomed to the new powerful and effective digital hearing aids and growing numbers of cochlear implants.

The methods may differ, but perfect communication is still the Holy Grail and doctors with the understanding acquired in these classes will know what to look for.

It was lovely to meet these keen young students and hopefully see them gain a better appreciation of deaf language and culture.

Their medical course runs for five years and we look forward to the time when we will be seeing them demonstrating their new empathy and skills in surgeries or hospital wards.

© 2003 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd