Nursing Students Get a Crash Course in Communication from the Deaf Community
A role-reversal exercise brings language barriers into focus.
Seniors in the second-degree nursing program at SUNY Brockport, State University of New York, found themselves at a loss for words June 21. Participating in the Brockport Deaf Health Clinic, a role-reversal simulation on campus, they sought medical guidance without being able to speak. Relying on facial expressions, hand gestures, and written notes, they attempted to express their needs and questions to pseudo–healthcare providers portrayed by volunteers from Partners in Deaf Health, a local advocacy group — who communicated back only in American Sign Language (ASL), a language most of the students did not understand.
The consequences of the communication gap were quickly evident, as many students found themselves in the wrong place and did not know how to ask for directions. One of the actors misdiagnosed the students and handed them Skittles as medication. When some students started to dig in, he snatched them back to make a point, saving them from ingesting the wrong medication — only adding to their confusion.
One student expressed that she would have been ready to give up and leave without treatment if this were her real-world experience.
In the case of this exercise, though, the exasperation produced was impactful in a positive sense. Feedback from students throughout the day’s debriefing session included: “It was eye-opening”; “It was fun”; “I loved it”; “I had a great time”; and “I’m thankful for it.” They gained a greater awareness of the needs of the ASL community and the work of interpreters.
“Language can be such a huge barrier, which we as nurses need to understand,” said Richard Ashun, who graduated in August. “I have much more appreciation of that after this clinic, even down to the little nonverbal cues I use. At least now I can introduce myself!”
Assistant Professor of Nursing Tamala David, who facilitated this second annual event, said that understanding is precisely the goal.
“Now these students have a baseline for when this comes up in their real work, and they won’t freeze up,” she said.
Asked why she decided to have her students go through this exercise, David said, “It’s important for anyone working in healthcare to do this. We need to understand the patients as people and to understand how best to give them care.”
Since nurses are a patient’s first point of contact and typically spend more time with patients than other clinicians do, David said, smooth communication is especially important.
Professor and Chair of Nursing Kathleen Peterson added, “In order to communicate adequately, you need to build in more time.”
The students saw firsthand the need to slow down, be patient, and ask questions.
Among the participants were five students and a faculty member from the University of Costa Rica who were part of a two-week exchange program. These students expressed the heightened confusion they felt because of the “double effort” they had to put in when translating, and the “relief” they felt when someone understood them.
Costa Rican student Kimberly Guadamuz Guevara said, “I will think about this every day now when speaking with someone, whether someone who is Deaf or can’t speak Spanish or can’t speak English.”
Peterson said the exercise gives students “exposure to living in that other world, so they can have patience and understanding. We’re helping our nurses learn to be great nurses for those who have different communication needs.”