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Coalition member Deaf Access Services is an organization helping meet the needs of deaf and hard of hearing people. We recently spoke with Pamela Kefi, Executive Director, to learn about the agency’s mission and why they are working to eliminate stigma.

Q: Why is your agency involved in reducing the stigma of mental illness?

Because of language barriers to mainstream services, many Deaf and Hard of Hearing people do not have adequate access to health related information or culturally and linguistically appropriate preventive services or interventions. As a result, there are more misconceptions and myths about mental illness, and more people are going without help. We are the only non-profit in WNY solely dedicated to meeting the needs of Deaf and Hard of Hearing people. It is our responsibility to step up and make a difference.

Q: How are individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing at risk for mental health issues?

Deaf and Hard of Hearing individuals are more likely to face longer term issues if they are dealing with mental health challenges because of the lack of language appropriate service providers. They may be denied interpreters, or not referred to appropriate levels of care because of the providers concern about higher costs or the inability to properly diagnose due to language barriers.

According to a study entitled Language deprivation syndrome: a possible neurodevelopmental disorder with sociocultural origins by Wyatte C. Hall, Leonard L. Levin and Melissa L. Anderson, published in 2016, “Deaf individuals experience a higher prevalence of behavioral health concerns …significantly poorer quality of life and higher levels of emotional distress compared to the general population. Deaf female undergraduates are two times as likely to experience interpersonal trauma. In addition, a community sample of 308 deaf individuals found elevated reports of lifetime emotional abuse (27.5%), physical abuse (21.0%), and sexual violence (20.8%). Deaf adolescents can experience emotional and behavioral mental health problems associated with low self-esteem and peer rejection, and a range of developmental adversities unique to being deaf in a hearing world, such as lack of accessible communication with parents and peers.

Q: Why is it important to address the stigma of mental illness in our community?

Language rights are human rights and access to mainstream services are values that we all hold true. It’s imperative that we act as a community to ensure that all people have equitable access to quality services and essential information in order to live full and independent lives. In the case of access for Deaf people, the stigma and misinformation that exists within the community is certainly a factor we must contend with, but the stigma in the mainstream community about Deaf people, is an even greater barrier to addressing mental health.