I want to start by stating that I am privileged; I have my hearing primarily intact. While I have some hearing difficulties of my own, I want to be clear that I recognize my privilege as a hearing person. I can hear proficiently enough to interact with the majority of the public sectors. I want to acknowledge this as a mostly hearing person that is about to talk about a community and culture that is not my own; I may be perceived as inadvertently and indirectly appropriating said culture. However, my goal and intention are to raise awareness of the issue in hopes of helping increase access to services for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing (DHH) community.
It is difficult to fully account for how many Deaf and Hard of Hearing individuals live in the U.S. since there is no guarantee of entirely reliable surveying. For this article, I will be using the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) information. According to NCHS, approximately 37 million people are Deaf or Hard of Hearing in the United States. California alone has about 3 million people from the DHH community (the Office of Deaf Access of California). A quick search on the most eminent mental health directory will produce approximately 10,000 mental health professionals within the state of California. Of those 10,000, only about 78 therapists claim to be fluent or proficient in American Sign Language (ASL). Even if we were to book each of those 78 Californian therapists to a little over “full capacity” (about 30 clients per therapist), that would only make a dent of 2,340, leaving a deficit of 2,997,660 individuals. I understand that it is quite possible that not all 3 million DHH Californians would need a therapist or the like. Nonetheless, it demonstrates a gross disparity in access to mental health services based on the numbers alone.
With such a significant disparity, we need to bridge the gap by decreasing the barriers to accessing mental health treatment. In this case, the primary barrier being language. American Sign Language (ASL) is one way Deaf or Hard of Hearing people can communicate and interact with others. If we as mental health professionals were all able to learn ASL, that would significantly increase the availability and access to mental health services for all DHH community. Idealistically, I would say that one way of dismantling the language barrier would include making ASL mandatory in schools. ASL is a derivative of the English language, which would make it easier and feasible to learn. To speak both English and know the corresponding signs to English words would make the world a more inclusive place in education, the workplace and improve access to services such as healthcare. I would also state that all other nations could implement the same system and teach the most relevant form of signing corresponding to their respective native tongues.
Making Mental Health More Accessible!
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“Idealistically, I would say that one way of dismantling the language barrier would include making ASL mandatory in schools.”
While I cannot speak in all certainty, there seems to be an equivalent quantity of base signs to that of the standard base of the English vocabulary. So learning ASL alongside English is possible, convenient even! According to a peer I’ve recently connected with, learning ASL fluently took them about a year with dedication and determination. If what I have read from anecdotal experiences is accurate, then complete immersion, based on the time it takes to learn sign language proficiently, can be even quicker than a year. It took me two years to master French; spending a year to learn another language is not only plausible but maybe even an efficient use of a year! My goal is to continue learning ASL to help when I can or when it is needed. The second goal I have is to help other providers (not just mental health professionals) realize that they too can contribute to inclusivity and increased access to services. Even knowing the bare-bones minimum can mean the world to someone who has spent a lifetime feeling excluded or unable to access essential needs and resources.
Another idea I would like to propose and urge quickly is for DHH community members to consider becoming mental health professionals. I understand that not everyone will have the ability to pursue work in the mental health profession. Still, it would positively impact other DHH folx if it is well within your capabilities. Finally, the last thing I would like to state: in the field of mental health, there are already so many barriers and stigmas placed; let us do what we can to eliminate one that, in my opinion, has a straightforward remedy. Learning ASL should be our civic duty and a standard of care for the helping, social, and public service professions.
I wouldn’t leave without reminding you all that you always have a place at A Safe Space!