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Hearing Your Deaf Client

April 2005
By: Linda Burris
Prepare a list of questions for new deaf clients
so that you can arrange to have what they
need when they come in to your center.


The phone rings at the center, and you answer as usual. However, you realize that this is no ordinary call. There is a TTY (Text Telephone Yoke) relay service operator on the other end of the line. You hear: "Hello, a person is calling you through the (name of the state) relay. This is operator 1234. Have you received a relay call before?"

The operator then assists you in communicating with a deaf client. You answer some questions from the client, and then you schedule an appointment. Now what? Do you or your colleagues know enough sign language to communicate with the client once she arrives at the center? If not, how will you handle the situation?

Dion McAlarney, Director of Safe Harbor Women's Resource Center in Pensacola, Florida, said regarding her first TTY call, "It was unsettling to think that someone else was listening, and I wondered if the operator was correctly communicating all that I was saying, but then, I just let go. I had to speak slowly, but we talked for about forty-five minutes. The caller was a college student about thirty years old. I felt that I was able to cover everything about abortion risks and other issues that she would care about later."

Kathy,* a volunteer from another center, echoed those sentiments. "The relay call caught me off guard. It took a few seconds to get my thoughts together. I was thinking, 'What is the best way to phrase my questions?' There were a lot of pauses during the TTY conversation while the operator typed the information she gave and while the client gave her answers, but there was no need to fill the pauses. It was very exciting to receive this call. Looking back, I wish I had said, 'I am glad you called, and I am looking forward to meeting you. Do you want me to arrange for an interpreter?'" In this instance, however, the client was scheduled during the shift of another volunteer who knew sign language! God does work out the details for each situation.

Susan DaRosa, Director of the Pregnancy Resource Center in Pensacola, remembers a hotline call from a deaf client. She answered the client's question that the PRC did not perform abortions but told her that the center had important information about the abortion procedures, other options, and resources available. The caller came one week later as a walk-in client. The counselor used lip reading and writing back and forth with the client, as well as a video, photo folder, and models on fetal development. These visuals greatly aided the communication process.

Valerie Schumm, Director of Alpha Center in Pensacola, says that our primary objective should be to convey love and warmth. "Working with deaf clients is similar to communicating with foreign clients who do not speak English, and we should remember that we are Christ's smile, hands, and feet." The local Deaf and Hard of Hearing Services provided Valerie with a website for videotapes for loan at no cost (www.cfv.org). This website has closed-captioned videotapes on abstinence, sexually transmitted diseases, fetal development, and parenting.

Dion McAlarney suggests maintaining a list of volunteer interpreters from local centers and churches so that you can call on them when you need to. You can also give your deaf clients a list of churches that have interpreters signing at services. This will help them find a church home. These lists could be made available to all of the centers in your area.

Regarding confidentiality, the Sprint Relay Customer Service assures that, "The relay service is 'just like' a telephone wire ... relaying information from you to them and them to you. None of the information is kept after the call by the relay service. An operator would lose his job if he did not keep everything confidential; in fact, he is monitored for this." However, the client can keep a printout of the TTY conversation. Your local director may still want you to use call blocking (such as *67) before placing a TTY call for follow-up purposes, in order to maintain discretion.

Tasha,* a deaf client, confirmed that she was not concerned about confidentiality with the relay system when she called. She was confident that the operator would do a good job. She also felt that she was treated with kindness and respect while at the center and that she could recommend the center to any of her friends who might benefit from the services. She suggested that the center have its own TTY so that deaf clients could call directly without an operator, if they preferred. (The website tap.gallaudet.edu/tty.htm answers frequently asked questions about TTYs and gives information about manufacturers.) E-mail is also a great tool for follow-up with deaf clients.

At the end of her visit, Tasha was given several informative brochures, but she said that her favorite was entitled: "Coming Home: An Invitation to Join God's Family." Although Tasha was already a Christian, her interest in this brochure reminds us that there is a great need for evangelism in the deaf community.

So when a TTY caller is on the other end of the line, put aside your apprehensions and simply focus on meeting your client's needs. God will take care of the rest.

*Names were changed for confidentiality.

Linda Burris volunteers at a PRC in Florida. She may be contacted at DonnisB@peoplepc.com.

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