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UTRGV hosting town hall meetings for deaf



EDINBURG — For people deaf or hard of hearing, important tasks like preventive health screenings might be more tedious than usual. Between finding a physician who has a sign language translator and figuring out whether they understood all their needs, some might prefer to skip it all together.

That is why the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley began hosting town hall meetings, hoping to get feedback on the most pressing needs of the deaf and hard of hearing community and figuring out how

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to begin offering services as soon as possible. The meetings began in November and will continue through January.

“Communication is the key need around here,” said Shawn Saladin, associate dean for Research and Graduate Programs at UTRGV. “The needs are very different for people who are deaf and people who are hard of hearing — communication needs, technology needs and things like that.”

With the medical school about to open up next year, Saladin, who was born hard of hearing and now serves on the Texas School for the Deaf Governing Board, said he partnered with Linda Nelson, UTRGV senior director of clinical operations, to figure out how to begin offering services and preparing medical students to meet these needs.

“We want several clinics where these people can go for routine primary care … dental services and things like that to improve the overall health and quality of life,” Saladin said.

With a vision but no initial funding, Nelson said they began putting together these town halls in hopes of gathering enough feedback to develop a plan of action early next year.

The first meeting took place in Rio Grande City at the end of November, and meetings continued into December in Edinburg and Harlingen. But the team plans to host five more meetings between now and January in Mission, Port Isabel, Brownsville, Raymondville and Weslaco.

So far, they have identifi ed about 180 needs varying from resources to health education to funding for hearing aids, Nelson said.

Once the meetings are done, the next step is to analyze the data to present the most pressing areas to the school of medicine and hopefully secure funding to begin providing some services, Saladin said.

“There’s opportunities for other programs through the medical school,” he said. “Like Ph.D.s in audiology … that would tie the medical school to future research.”

The needs vary between those who were born deaf and ask for more clinics with staff that knows sign language and basic healthcare education in this language to those who are hard of hearing and need more counseling on how to deal with the change and resources for hearing aids, Saladin said.

Meeting some of the most basic needs becomes more complicated when the person lives in a rural area that might be more isolated from any available services, he added.

But there are several steps that university officials are ready to take to better the healthcare opportunities of those who are deaf and hard of hearing, Saladin said. One is to begin teaching sign language to the staff at the John Austin Peña treatment facility in Edinburg.

The university also plans to teach sign language to staff who will be providing healthcare services in a mobile van in rural areas sometime next year, Nelson said.

“I envision clinics where all staff will sign,” she said. “The school of medicine staff will be able to communicate with every population. That’s my goal, so that we reduce the health disparities.”

For both Nelson and Saladin, the ideal outcome would be for the school of medicine to train new students and staff on the needs on this community — which ranges between 8,000 and 15,000 deaf people in the Rio Grande Valley.

“We want our medical students to be appreciative of all underserved population,” Nelson said. “If my staff can at least start by learning letters, so that we can at least spell out things, I think it reaches out to the patient, and it says ‘We care about you.’”

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