Cultural competency in serving the deaf has come a long way

by Walter Brooks, UNMC public affairs | March 29, 2002

When Janet Killam presents Tuesday's Lunch 'n Learn, the audience won't hear a single word. Killam, a field representative for the Nebraska Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, is deaf and will make her presentation using sign language.

Fortunately for the audience, Killam's colleague, Judy Gouldsmith, will orally interpret her message. Gouldsmith, an interpreter/program assistant in the commission's Omaha office, will discuss key issues in providing medical services to the deaf.

The noon presentation titled "Deaf Patients and Sign Language Interpreters in Medical Settings" will be in the College of Nursing, Room 1010. Lunch will be available for the first 20 attendees. The presentation is sponsored by the Employee Diversity Network, UNMC and NHS.

What is it like to live in a world without sound? Deaf history focuses, in large part, on a centuries-long struggle to overcome discrimination by the hearing world and provide better opportunities for the hearing-impaired. The following chronology is from a Public Broadcast System Web site devoted to the 2001 Academy Award-nominated documentary, "Sound and the Fury," a historical analysis of deaf culture.

1000 B.C. -- The Hebrew Talmud protects the deaf from being cursed by others, but denies the deaf the right to own property.

1500s -- The experimentation throughout Renaissance Europe sets the stage for education of the deaf. Physician Girolamo Cardano of Padua, Italy, attempts to teach his deaf son using a code of symbols believing that the deaf can be taught written symbolic language. Meanwhile, Pedro Ponce de Leon, a Benedictine monk, successfully teaches speech to people deaf since birth. Juan Pablo Bonet, an advocate of early sign language, writes the first known book of manual alphabetic signs for the deaf in 1620.

1700s -- Charles Michel De L'Eppe, a French priest, establishes the first free public school for the deaf in France. He tries to establish a bridge between the deaf and hearing worlds through a system of standardized signs and finger spelling. He also founds a shelter for the deaf in Paris and a school for deaf children in Truffaut, France.

In 1788, he publishes a dictionary of French sign language. During the same period, oral educators make strides in Spain, Germany, France, Holland and England. Many use secret methods to teach lip reading to their deaf pupils. Among the most successful oral teachers of the deaf is Samuel Heinicke, a German educator. Using techniques developed by a Dutch doctor, Heinicke teaches pupils speech by having them feel his throat while he speaks. His orally based educational techniques are called "The German Method."

1870s -- Alexander Graham Bell began his career as a deaf educator. His mother was hard of hearing and his father had spent much of his life promoting a defunct teaching method for the deaf called "visible speech." In 1872, Bell opened a school in Boston that concentrated on oral methods of instruction for teachers of the deaf. The school went broke because he couldn't compete with established deaf schools that used manual sign language methods. So Bell quit the deaf education business and refocused his attention on a contraption he had been tinkering with that mechanized speech. In 1876, he patented the telephone. Armed with wealth and enormous recognition, Bell founded the Volta Bureau to promote oral-based education for deaf children. A new period of upheaval ensued in deaf education with a backlash against sign language.

1985 -- The cochlear implant is approved for clinical trials in people 18 and older. The device is a mechanical prosthesis of sorts for the inner ear, placing electrodes directly in the cochlear, where sound waves are absorbed and interpreted by the auditory nerve.

1995 -- Heather Whitestone, an orally educated deaf woman from Birmingham, Ala., wins the coveted title of Miss America -- the first deaf person to wear the crown. She said, "Speech worked for me, but it does not work for all deaf children."

Today, America's deaf community, despite its inability to hear, is making itself heard loud and clear. As participants at the deaf workshop will learn, developing fully comprehensible medical services for the deaf is simply another key component to expanding cultural competency in the health sciences.