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Helping Mothers Who Are Deaf or Hard of Hearing

Nancy Jo Bykowski
From: LEAVEN, May-June 1994, pp. 45-6

We provide articles from our publications from previous years for reference for our Leaders and members. Readers are cautioned to remember that research and medical information change over time

I recently received an unexpected kind of helping call. When I answered the telephone, an operator said that he was calling from the Illinois Relay system. He told me that another person was calling me from a text telephone. He said he would be reading her words to me and would transcribe my spoken response for her to read. He asked me to speak clearly and say "go ahead" when I was finished speaking.

With such a whirlwind introduction, I found the call a bit confusing. I got the feeling that since the mother would be reading my responses, I should try to form grammatically correct sentences. I felt a normal urge to say nurturing things, but I was afraid that it would take too much time. The call ended quickly because the baby was crying and the mother needed to go to him. I managed to get her address and offered to send written information before the call ended.

It was only after I hung up that I realized that the mother I had just "talked" to was probably deaf or hard of hearing! My interest was piqued, so I decided to educate myself about the system I had just used. I started by going to our Area Administrative Assistant, who keeps track of the Leader interest/experience sheets in Illinois. She connected me with a Leader in the area, Kathleen Tully, who had experience using the Illinois Relay System. I also went to my local library and gathered information from other sources.

I found that mothers who are hard of hearing, deaf or speech impaired can use special equipment to make phone calls. A text telephone or telecommunications device for the deaf (this can be abbreviated as TT, TTY, or TDD) can send typed messages over phone lines. In the past, users of TT equipment could only call locations that also had this special equipment.

Relay systems have been developed to allow TT users to communicate by telephone with people who don't have TT equipment. A relay system provides trained operators who have TT equipment. The TT user calls the relay center and the relay center operator calls the person without TT equipment, thus setting up a three-way call. The operator acts as a translator by reading the typed messages and transcribing the spoken responses. These systems were mandated recently in the United States by the Americans with Disabilities Act. While such sophisticated systems may not yet be available everywhere, it is of interest to know about this technology.

A Leader who receives such a call should speak as if she were speaking directly to the mother, ignoring the idea that there is someone translating. It's okay to take the time to be empathetic as you gather information. The operators are well trained and the equipment is suited to the task at hand. The operator will let the Leader know if she is talking too fast or if there are technical terms that need to be spelled. The slight delay that occurs while the messages are being sent can be used to take notes and check resources.

Active listening skills are especially helpful on relay systems. Since communication travels through a third person, you may find that some situations or emotions remain unclear. Active listening, the skill of restating the feeling and content of what the speaker has communicated in a way that demonstrates understanding and acceptance, can overcome this challenge. A Leader can mirror details back to the mother to make sure she has understood correctly. Or, the mother can be asked to repeat the suggestions that have been made in order to see if they have been communicated clearly. It might also be helpful to ask, "Do you have any questions?" to give the mother a chance to ask for more information or a clearer explanation.

All calls are confidential and it is possible to request a female operator. This is a valuable option since a woman may be more familiar with the subject matter. A mother who has some hearing may request "hearing carry over" along with the transcription of the conversation so that she can use her hearing to help communicate. If this alternative is requested, the operator will let you know. If a Leader needs to call a mother back with more information, she should get both the mother's telephone number and the number for the relay system. To call a mother back, call the relay system first so that a three-way call can be set up.

Leaders who have personal computers equipment (including a modem and telecommunications software) may be able to use that equipment in conjunction with a telephone relay system. Leaders who subscribe to an interactive computer service may want to inquire about whether the mother has such equipment available. Since this precludes the need for a third party, it may make communication more direct. For more information about special considerations when using such systems, refer to "The World's Largest La Leche League Meeting," November/December 1992 LEAVEN and "LLL and Interactive Computer Services," July-August 1993 LEAVEN.

Sending written information may be especially helpful for mothers who are deaf or hard of hearing. A mother who uses TT equipment for phone calls may be more fluent in sign language than she is in spoken language. Sign language is more visual and has slightly different grammar than spoken language. Having the information in writing gives the mother a chance to "translate." For more information about whether a telephone relay system is available in your area, check your telephone directory or call your local phone company. These systems may differ slightly from state to state and country to country.

A mother who is deaf or hard of hearing may wish to attend a Series Meeting or may need a home visit from a Leader. If she communicates through sign language, she may know someone who would be willing to interpret for her. In some communities, interpreters who are fluent in sign language may be available. If an interpreter is used, be sure to talk directly to the mother, not the interpreter.

Some mothers who are deaf or hard of hearing are able to lip-read and speak. It is important to remember that even the best lip-reader picks up less than half the words you speak, and relies upon you to look directly at her as you speak clearly and slowly. Lip-reading is made more difficult by exaggerated lip movements and shouting. Keep your hands away from your mouth when speaking. It's helpful to speak expressively because the mother will use your facial expressions, gestures, and body movements to help her interpret your words. Don't stand with a bright light behind you. Whenever possible, ask questions that can be answered in few words or with a nod of the head. Don't pretend to understand when you don't. Repeat what you think the person said, and use written notes if necessary.

Whether the approach is high-tech, mother-to-mother, or through an interpreter, La Leche League Leaders all over the world can help mothers from many different backgrounds.

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