Happy National Deaf History Month! If you haven’t heard of this awareness month, it runs from March 13 to April 15. Nearly 15% of adult Americans report trouble hearing, so you may have patients who have hearing issues and aren’t even aware of it. If you don’t know American Sign Language (ASL) yourself, you may be at a loss for where to begin. Fortunately, there are plenty of steps, from the simple to the more complex, that you and your staff can take to help your deaf and hard-of-hearing patients feel at ease.

Simple steps

  • Have office protocols for serving deaf and hard-of-hearing patients. With a little bit of planning and forethought, you and your staff will be ready to welcome your deaf and hard-of-hearing patients from the moment they make an appointment until the moment they schedule their next one and head home. Make sure that your patients can schedule appointments without having to make a phone call, such as by text message, email or social media. You should also think about little touches for when your patient arrives, such as offering a dental cup to patients who may want to remove their hearing aids while they’re in the chair. (Hearing aids can be shockingly expensive and are definitely not something your patients want to lose!)
  • Speak slowly, clearly and directly facing your patient. This helps your patient read lips, as well as avoiding the possibility of carrying on a conversation with a patient’s “bad” ear. Given that you and your staff will likely be wearing a mask because of COVID-19, speaking slowly and clearly even more essential (you can also use clear facemasks).
  • Go the extra mile to make your patients feel comfortable. Patients who are experiencing hearing loss from old age may be embarrassed that they can’t follow conversations as closely as they used to. If you notice that a patient isn’t quite hearing you, apologize and repeat yourself with a focus on slow, clear communication.
  • Encourage your patients to talk openly with yourself and their other doctors. As a dental professional, you may notice a patient’s sensitivity to sound (or lack thereof) or other issues before the patient does. If you suspect that some of your patients may have hearing issues they’re not aware of, encourage them to consult their physician or a specialist.

These are all great steps that any practice can follow to better serve patients who are deaf and hard of hearing. If you have patients with greater needs, or you simply want to develop your practice’s capabilities, there’s even more you can do.

Taking it to the next level

  • Add more electronic text throughout your practice. The prevalence of text-based tools like email, online messaging and chat apps has been a game changer for many people who are deaf and hard of hearing. Increasing your digital presence and making your practice available through multiple venues both helps new patients to find you and existing patients to contact you through their preferred method. If your practice regularly posts videos on YouTube or other services, make sure that the videos are captioned.
  • Take American Sign Language (ASL) classes or add someone to your staff who knows ASL. Having staff members who know languages other than English is both a great way to reach a wider part of your community and a nice perk when it comes to updating your Find a Dentist directory listing. If you already have staff who are fluent in ASL, make sure you mention that on your directory listing! If your staff doesn’t have anyone who knows ASL, you can find classes at local universities, colleges and community colleges, as well as more specialized institutions like schools for deaf people, deaf service centers or interpreter training programs. If you’re not ready or able to sign up for classes, you can always learn a few key phrases online.
  • Make use of Delta Dental’s Language Assistance Program (LAP). The LAP is a free service that your Delta Dental patients can use to get professional interpretive services (along with phone assistance, written materials and more). This includes ASL interpreters who can come to your office to assist in communication.

More than 35 million people in the United States report having trouble hearing, whether they suffer from mild hearing loss or are completely deaf, so thinking about how to serve this population is well worth your time. Whether you want to master ASL or you just want to begin accepting appointments by email in addition to the phone, taking steps to make your practice more inviting to patients who are deaf and hard of hearing is well worth your time.