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October 29, 2004

ACCESS Deaf Access Program offers crucial services

From: ACCESS - Oct 29, 2004

OCTOBER 21, 2004
Elaine Hegwood Bowen


Imagine living in a world where those around you are speaking, but you are unable to hear or partake in the conversation.

Now imagine lying in a hospital bed, signing the consent papers for a leg amputation without having any idea what you've signed because the medical words were never explained to you.

For some Deaf and hard of hearing patients, accessing health care services is made more difficult because they are unable to fully communicate with their health care providers.

Access Community Health Network and Mount Sinai Hospital have been on the forefront of making this communication easier with the use of American Sign Language fluent doctors and interpreters for Deaf and hard of hearing children, adolescents and parents through their Deaf Access Program.

"The Deaf Access Program is a culturally competent program," says lead physician Dr. Gary Kaufman, "because the people involved in the program, including the manager, therapists and interpreters are Deaf or come from Deaf families."

Program doctors are also Board certified, widely published and nationally recognized in teaching, research and patient care. This, combined with their experiences with the Deaf culture, fully equips them to help community members with various medical needs.

The program allows the same doctors and therapists to track and care for the patients; and this guarantees a "seamless continuity of care." This bond makes Deaf and hard of hearing patients more comfortable discussing sensitive health related issues, Dr. Kaufman said.

Teri Hedding, Manager of the Deaf Access Program, echoed Dr. Kaufman's sentiments. "The Deaf Access Program is so unique because throughout the country there is no other comprehensive program for both medical and mental health services with its own policies and administrative support," she said. "In addition, it is very rare to see three signing doctors and three staff sign language interpreters in the same program."

Additionally, the program's patient advocate, Linda Perry, who helps patients with insurance and daily personal matters, was brought up in a home with deaf parents and uses American Sign as her first language.

The program also offers a myriad of health care specialties, including mental health services, which are crucial, because these services help patients tackle issues of depression, anxiety, anger or other feelings that interfere with normal daily life.

Another significant feature of the program is that interpreters are on call 24 hours a day to assist patients whenever they are needed. As a result, patients aren't forced to spend the entire night in the emergency room, waiting for regular daytime staff to arrive. "Most emergency rooms don't call interpreters, and it's illegal to have a family member or minor interpret for a Deaf patient," Dr. Kaufman said. He illustrated that if a Deaf woman has a sensitive health issue, her husband should not be the one who's interpreting on her behalf with health care officials; the interpreter should be a neutral party to prevent any untruthful disclosures.

For the estimated 50,000 Deaf and hard of hearing individuals in the Chicago area, significant changes in technology have also made communication easier. "Deaf people have done wonders with email," Dr. Kaufman said. "And this is part of the pop culture, which makes them feel more included."

This feeling of inclusion is one of the major aims of the program. "Our program is unique in that it was a system that was designed to care for the Deaf, instead of a system that was already in place that brought in or accommodated the Deaf population," Dr. Kaufman continued. "Traditionally health care for the Deaf was considered a big, black box. When a 60-year-old patient came to me and said he never knew what his pills were for until our appointment, it was like a light bulb had gone off in his head."

The program recently received the New Freedom Foundation's Best Community Program Award, recognizing its importance to this special community. "This award is a testament to the phenomenal human beings in the program, and the hard work and conscientious staff," said Dr. Kaufman. "But there would be no program without the patients."

Approximately 150 Deaf and hard of hearing patients participate in the program on a monthly basis, said Hedding, who continued: "I felt really honored and excited to receive the award. I felt good that the organization recognized us as an important community program for the Deaf."

While interpreters will be provided for any scheduled visit, the full range of the Deaf Access Program is available at a number of ACCESS health centers, including Grand Boulevard Family Health Center on the South Side; Servicios Medicos La Villita on the West Side; ACCESS at Anixter Center and Peterson Family Health Center on the North Side; Kling Professional Medical Center located at Mount Sinai Hospital; and Martin T. Russo Family Health Center, located in Bloomingdale, Illinois. It is also available at our partner sites at the Touhy Health Center, Mount Sinai Hospital, Sinai Community Institute and Schwab Rehab.

ACCESS is comprised of 42 JCAHO accredited community health centers located throughout Chicago and the suburbs. It is the largest network of community health centers in the nation, committed to providing high quality, cost effective, safe, comprehensive primary and preventive health care to 160,000 individual patients annually, one-third of whom are uninsured.

The TTY number for the Deaf Access Program is 773.257.6289, and the voice number is 773.257.5125. To learn more about ACCESS health centers or other programs in your community, please call Elaine Hegwood Bowen, Media Coordinator, at 773.257.6599, email:, or call the toll free number at 1.866.88.ACCESS.