Hospital videophones help deaf make calls

U-M system is the first in the state to provide patients and visitors with communication devices.

January 25, 2008, Christina Stolarz, The Detroit News

ANN ARBOR -- Recovering in her hospital bed after brain surgery at the University of Michigan Hospital, Maureen Lantagne enjoyed an unusual dose of independence: She called her mother by herself on a videophone.

It's the first time she was able to make and receive phone calls in her native sign language during a hospital visit.

The alternative for Lantagne -- and other members of the deaf community -- is to rely on nurses to place calls to family and friends, or use a TTY, Text Telephone, to type and read messages in English. But neither method is preferred, especially since English isn't always a deaf person's first language.

"Signing is so much more comfortable than typing," Lantagne, 45, of Luzerne, said earlier this month through Andi Chumley, a U-M sign language interpreter. "It felt so much better. It's a relief."

The University of Michigan Health System is making strides for the deaf community as one of nearly a dozen hospitals nationwide -- the first in Michigan -- to provide Sorenson videophones for its deaf patients and visitors.

The hospital installed a permanent Sorenson VP-200 videophone kiosk in the main hospital lobby in October, and received two mobile videophones last month that can be used in patients' rooms and in the emergency department.

The hospital is looking into getting four additional videophones for satellite offices, said Christa Moran, a sign language interpreter with U-M's interpretive services.

"It's really important because (hearing people) don't have to live with the discrimination of not having access to communication," she said. "I see what a hearing patient gets by being able to pick up the phone and call their parents.

"As an interpreter you want these people you develop relationships with to be able to have the same rights as everyone else, especially in situations where they're sick and scared.

"This is what every deaf person uses (at home) and this is what we should provide to them."

There are an estimated 90,720 deaf people in Michigan, according to estimates released in 2005 by the Michigan Department of Labor and Economic Growth's Division on the Deaf and Hard of Hearing. Of those, 7,326 were in Macomb County, 10,871 were in Oakland and 18,259 were in Wayne.

The videophones consist of a remote to type in phone numbers and a Web camera-like device that's placed atop a television or computer.

It connects deaf patients and visitors to a nationwide network of American Sign Language interpreters who facilitate conversations for them with hearing individuals. The videophones can also be used to call another deaf person; in this instance, a sign language interpreter isn't used.

Moran lobbied for the videophones in a proposal she wrote -- with suggestions from deaf clients -- in August 2006 to improve the health system's deaf services.

U-M's interpretive services had about 1,800 sign-language interpreter appointments last year.

The videophone devices are free to the deaf community; it cost U-M an estimated $15,600 to purchase mobile carts and install high-speed Internet in the lobby kiosk, she said.

The accessibility is encouraging to the deaf community, said Nan Asher, executive director of the Lansing-based Michigan Association of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing.

"People don't realize how isolating hearing loss can be. (Videophones) level the playing field," said Asher, who's also chairwoman of the Michigan Coalition on Deaf and Hard of Hearing People.

"This allows them to communicate in their own (sign) language. It's much more natural for them."

Ypsilanti resident Teresa Fear, who was born deaf, said through the interpreter, Chumley, that the videophones are a step in the right direction, and she hopes other hospitals will follow.

"You don't have to rely on someone else," said Fear, 43, a retired postal worker. "I'd rather be independent and do it on my own. I'm so proud to have the independence.

"That is so important."

From The Detroit News. Reprinted with permission. Back to Article List