Alum Is Working to Make Healthcare More Accessible for the Deaf Community
SPH alum TraciAnn Hoglind is the founder and director of Health Signs Virtual Care, a national nonprofit organization working to promote equity and provide linguistically and culturally accessible health services for the diverse deaf community.
Communication is a key piece of healthcare. It builds trust, breaks down barriers, and ensures patients are able to make informed decisions about their own health and well-being.
But what happens when the patient and doctor speak a different language? When bias impedes care? When there is an unqualified interpreter provided for the patient? Or no interpreter at all?
For the deaf community, which includes persons who identify as deaf, deafblind, deafdisabled, hard of hearing, or late deafened who use American Sign Language (ASL), a lack of access to culturally appropriate health information and communication puts them at a higher risk for adverse health outcomes compared to hearing, or non-deaf, people. This limited access to information also results in deaf individuals having lower health literacy and places them at a higher risk of being misdiagnosed or not diagnosed at all.
School of Public Health alum TraciAnn Hoglind (SPH’19) is working to change this. In 2020, she founded Health Signs Center, a national nonprofit organization with the mission of promoting and advocating for health, health equity, and health access for the deaf community by providing direct linguistically and culturally accessible education, advocacy, and resources.
Since its inception, the organization has shared accessible public health information across a range of topics on social media. They have also partnered with other organizations on projects, such as their work on Safer Sex Stories, a 12-part video series in partnership with the Massachusetts Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing and the Bureau of Infectious Disease and Laboratory Science at the Massachusetts Department of Public Health. The series, which was performed in ASL, provided information about HIV and sexually transmitted infection prevention and treatment through a social justice lens.
Through a micro-grant from the Communication Service for the Deaf (CSD) – Unites Foundation, Hoglind and her team have also conducted a COVID-19 survey study to help inform and develop deaf-inclusive policy initiatives during national emergencies.
Most recently, Health Signs Center was acquired by CSD, the largest deaf-led social impact organization in the world, and expanded to Health Signs Virtual Care. This groundbreaking acquisition will allow them to provide direct, ASL-accessible telehealth services to deaf patients and eliminate significant barriers to care. They are the first organization to provide native language communication health care virtually with ASL-fluent healthcare professionals.
Hoglind, who is the director of Health Signs Virtual Care, sat down with us to share more about her work, how public health can better support the deaf community, and how her time at SPH prepared her for the work she is doing today.
with TraciAnn Hoglind
What inspired you to start Health Signs Center (now Health Signs Virtual Care)?
As a deaf person who primarily communicates in ASL, I’ve faced numerous barriers to health care throughout my life and have seen endless horrific stories that have happened to other folks. My grandma, who I was very close with, was a nurse, so I’ve always been fascinated by healthcare. As the mother to my deaf father, she has also been a big advocate for education and accessibility for the deaf community. Growing up with this drive and passion, and with my experience in public health research, as well as policy and advocacy on the government level, aligned nicely together with the work we do and for what’s to come.
The deaf community is unique; we are people with disabilities who also have a different language and culture. We are often a forgotten demographic in not only public health work and research, but in other fields, as well. Deaf folks are making strides of differences across the medical and public health profession across the country currently. The more we are seen, the better the awareness will spread. This will also help providers and hospitals to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act to provide us with effective communication (yes, we are still being denied basic human rights and yes, they often get away with it).
What do you wish public health practitioners understood about the deaf community?
Inaccessible healthcare communication, such as using unqualified interpreters or paper and pen writing to communicate with deaf patients, is considered malpractice. Healthcare will not be equal and accessible until we see diversity and representation of deaf professionals and professionals with disabilities at the table everywhere in the healthcare system. Give us a seat, we’ve always been ready.
There is likely very little time and content dedicated to learning about the diverse deaf community in medical training programs, and likely without actual insight from appropriate representation. Though we recognize that with more awareness around the deaf community nowadays, progress has been made. But, we’re not there yet. The healthcare and medical systems still view us as something that needs to be fixed. We’re actually proud of who we are with our beautiful language, community, and culture. We don’t need to be fixed, we just need access.
What did you enjoy most about your experience at SPH?
I will admit that being the only deaf student at SPH was difficult, as it would be for any deaf or disabled student at a large hearing-led institution. What I am most grateful for are my classmates who made the effort to learn ASL to engage in conversations with me and the amazing professors who made learning about every aspect of public health so fascinating. Shout out to Dr. Michael Siegel who learned ASL and supported my dream of establishing this organization!
How did your time at SPH prepare you to do the work you are doing today?
Being able to take various courses that included public health advocacy, management, communication, population health, social justice, and more gave me a very wide range of tools that I still use today.
SPH has also instilled my confidence that the world is ready for change, and as a deaf public health professional, I can contribute to that change.