Medical Students Develop Sign Language Skills

An innovative program is gaining nationwide recognition in the medical and scientific community for giving medical students American Sign Language […]

An innovative program is gaining nationwide recognition in the medical and scientific community for giving medical students American Sign Language (ASL) skills. Since June 2003, the National Cancer Institute has funded a program called “American Sign Language, Deaf Culture and Cancer Control Program for Medical Students” at the Rebecca and John Moores University of California at San Diego (UCSD) Cancer Center.

According to Melanie C. Nakaji, the program’s project coordinator and ASL instructor, the program has several goals: “to produce physicians who are informed about cancer prevention and control; to respect the deaf community’s cultural beliefs, values, and traditions; to comfortably work with the deaf community; to have a solid working proficiency in ASL; to have ability to improve the deaf com-munity’s access to health information and care; to serve as clinical leaders and role models in advancing the health of the deaf community.”

The Deaf Community Service (DCS) in San Diego envisioned the program in 1997, when they identified the deaf community’s needs. “Lack of easy access to information was the biggest problem,” said Nakaji. Other issues included doctors’ lack of knowledge in utilizing interpreters, deaf culture, and ASL skills. The first class of seven students, who enrolled in 2003, will graduate from UCSD School of Medicine in 2007. A special certificate will be given to all ASL fellows who complete the two-year training program. There are currently 21 medical students enrolled in the program.

Before entering medical school, the students receive reading materials and videotapes about Deaf culture. During their first and second years in medical school, the students are enrolled in ASL courses. They also participate in an immersion program at Gallaudet University during the summer after the first year of medical school. Part of the curriculum is to conduct a required research project on a subject that should advance the health of the deaf community. They are also expected to take at least one fourth-year elective where they will interact with members of the deaf community.

The main motivation for participation in the program stems from the students’ desire to “work with people in under-served communities, said Nakaji. In addition, the program gives them a chance to learn an entirely new language and culture.” Nakaji suggests that the program does have some challenges, “the biggest of them is to try to figure out how to make it possible for students to add all these learning activities on top of their already full-time academic schedule.” However, even with challenges to overcome, the program was recognized as the “2004 Education Partner of the Year by Deaf President Now.”

UCSD has several future goals for the medical student – ASL program. Nakaji states that the “the most important future goals are to: encourage medical schools to recruit medical students who are already culturally sensitive and have ASL skills; show other schools how to replicate the program and to encourage medical schools to create programs to train deaf medical students.”

This article appeared in SIGNews’ December 2005 issue. Reprinted with permission.