3.5 Health


This is where we focus on the healthcare system and how it can better serve the needs of deaf people in Australia.

Healthcare is a massive topic, covering all stages of life from pre-natal to aged care, many different institutions, from GP surgeries, to hospitals, to aged care hospices, and all sorts of professionals, including doctors, nurses, allied health practitioners and many others.

Much of our health care occurs in very busy places, where staff are stretched and are juggling scarce resources.  This is true not just of GP surgeries and hospitals, but much of the rest of the health care sector too.  In such an environment it is easy for the special communication needs of deaf patients or deaf carers to be overlooked in favour of progressing them through the system.  However, failure to recognise these needs and adapt to them can have severe consequences for deaf people, including poorer (even life-threatening) health outcomes as a result of misdiagnosis or miscommunication about treatments, and the loss of their fundamental right to autonomy over heath care decisions and fully informed consent to treatments for themselves or those in their care.  It can also make those places feel much more unwelcoming and scary to deaf people than they need to be.

The health care sector is also where someone’s deafness will first be recognised (particularly for babies or young children), and where the advice of medical professionals (particularly to non-deaf parents of deaf children) can have life-long consequences for the deaf person.  Such diagnosis often occurs though the use of Newborn Hearing Screening of deaf babies under a week old.  The medical lens on deafness defaults naturally to seeing it as a physical impairment that must be corrected through medical procedures and technology.  The resulting advice to parents is often to rely wholly on hearing aid technology, implanted or otherwise, and actively avoid giving the child access to sign language, resulting often in language deprivation and its long-term consequences on cognitive development.

So how can deaf people’s health care experience be improved?

Firstly, accurate communication must be prioritised, even when staff are busy, and when achieving this involves allocation of scarce resources.  This applies particularly in regional and remote areas where access to interpreters or other supports is more difficult.

Secondly, communication support must be tailored to the particular needs of the patient or deaf carer.  For example, when employing interpreters, care should be taken to ensure compatibility.  Many deaf people suffer from the effects of early language deprivation or poor education, and many elderly deaf people may use signs less familiar to younger interpreters.  For some such patients, a deaf interpreter is also needed to ensure adequate bi-directional communication.  Some First Nations deaf patients have particular cultural or language needs, and some patients may prefer an interpreter of the same gender for some sensitive procedures.

Thirdly, the use of technology to facilitate communication, such as VRI, must be appropriate for the situation and the patient.  For example, VRI equipment must be placed in such a way that the patient/carer’s signing space is visible and they have equal access to communicate through the interpreter.   VRI should only be used in consultation with the deaf patient/carer, and should not be relied on when a patient is severely distressed.

Fourthly, health care organisations and institutions and their patents would benefit from having more staff learn some basic Auslan signs relevant to their services.  This should in no way be considered a substitute for the use of qualified interpreters, but for non-critical communications it can make a big difference to making a vulnerable deaf patient feel comfortable and safe.  For example, a nurse asking a patient if they are cold and want a blanket while waiting for a doctor or interpreter.

In regard to how the medical profession and health system deals with the diagnosis of deafness in babies and children, the issue is perspective.  Better consultation with adult deaf people and the Deaf community, with their multi-generational lived experience of deafness can help bring a different and more balanced perspective, that could enable more holistic advice to parents of deaf children – advice centred more fully on the lifetime wellbeing of the deaf child.

There are three downloadables to support improving services and communication in the healthcare system for deaf people in Australia: 

  • Snapshot of Health 
  • Guideline on Health AIDE 
  • Health AIDE Checklist 

Visual description

Deaf interpreter has white curly hair and is wearing a dark long-sleeved shirt. She is signing in a professional and informative manner towards the camera.


Fill out the form below to access the resource downloads.


  • Health AIDE Guideline PDF
  • Health AIDE Guideline Word document

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