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‘Deaf people have unique care needs that nurses must understand and help address’

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By limiting our understanding of diversity in nursing to matters of race and religion, we risk excluding other cultural groups, warns Arabella Sinclair-Penwarden

Issues of diversity enjoy a high profile in nursing today, from the RCN’s continuing emphasis on the importance of valuing diversity, to training in this area in both pre- and post-graduate contexts. Defined as ‘the state or quality of being different or varied’ in Collins English Dictionary, the word has accumulated various different interpretations, not all true to the original.

I asked several colleagues what ‘diversity’ meant to them. ‘Respecting people of different races,’ said one. ‘Being aware of other people’s religions and faiths,’ said another. Still another commented that it was ‘to do with treating each patient as an individual’.

These are examples of applying the term constructively and, typically of nursing, in a wholly practical manner. Yet by restricting our definition to matters of race or creed, we risk isolating the term and omitting cultural groups that fall under neither heading.
When I was asked to take on the role of diversity link nurse in my department, I was intrigued by the potential of the role. You see, there was no precedent, no shoes to fill. The role was entirely new.

Our trust had a comprehensive policy relating to the different spiritual beliefs of patients, and I had no desire to replicate what had been written. But I had read about Deaf culture – and there did not seem to be a great deal of awareness about it.

Deaf people are not always perceived as a specific cultural group. Indeed, there is confusion about the terms related to an absence of hearing. What, for example, is the difference between a patient being deaf and Deaf? Between being deafened and hard of hearing? Information is both scarce and sparse. Terms may be used interchangeably and research can be confusing.

It is common practice to capitalise the ‘D’ in ‘Deaf’ when writing about the culture and the children and adults that make up its members. The term ‘deafened’, or ‘deaf’ with a small ‘d’, or ‘hard of hearing’ is frequently used to describe someone who has acquired hearing loss. This may also be referred to as being ‘post-lingually deaf’, meaning those whose loss developed after the acquisition of spoken language.

Anecdotally it has been noted that terms can be used inconsistently, and sometimes incorrectly, even by healthcare workers.

Yet, when such a lack of clarity exists, it is unsurprising that confusion regarding dealing with patients with hearing loss should follow.

The term ‘Deaf community’ has demographic, linguistic, psychological and sociological dimensions, and this is underlined by the description of sign language as ‘a minority language’. It therefore seems wholly appropriate to include the needs of people who identify themselves as culturally Deaf when discussing diversity issues.

As nurses and midwives we are bound by the code of conduct set down by the NMC. Thus, we are – or should be – aware not only of the need to respect each person within our care as an individual but also to be wary of discriminating against them. Yet discrimination can take many forms. Direct discrimination is defined by the government as when a person is treated ‘less favourably because of, for example, their gender or race’. Indirect discrimination is when ‘a condition that disadvantages one group more than another is applied’.

By being ignorant of the discrete needs of culturally Deaf patients we risk indirectly discriminating against our own patients, whether by not providing an interpreter when one is required, or by assuming that a pre-lingually Deaf patient will be able to lip-read fluently.

We are not expected to be fluent in British sign language, nor to be fully au fait with the finer nuances of Deaf culture. But, in view of a 2004 RNID statistic suggesting that 35% of Deaf and hard of hearing people have been left unclear about their condition because of communication problems with a GP or nurse, neither can we afford to be lackadaisical. Awareness of these issues is the key to individualising care – and that is something that we are required to do.

Arabella Sinclair-Penwarden is a newly qualified staff nurse

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Readers' comments (1)

  • I am a profoundly deaf nurse. I was interviewed for NT back in 1996 regarding this and the perceptions of my peers. I think that nurses have changed somewhat over the years and are trying hard to meet the needs of the 'deaf' patient. I used to teach 'deaf awareness' in my old job in the UK and the sessions were always full. Perhaps it's something that needs to be rolled out across every trust.

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