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Internet offers little help for the culturally Deaf

Published May 14, 2012

The Internet is considered primarily a "visual" medium, as opposed to an aural one, and is thought by many to pose little barrier to non-hearing users. So hearing persons may be surprised to learn how difficult and dangerous the Internet can be for culturally Deaf persons seeking medical or health information.

Lance Rintamaki, PhD, a health communication researcher at the University at Buffalo, says that many culturally Deaf people also face dangers in face-to-face encounters with health care providers that they find frightening, and for good reason.

A new study he co-authored finds that the Internet -- the source of much medical information for most of us -- poses multiple communication barriers for the culturally Deaf, barriers that go far beyond inconvenience and can seriously compromise their health in ways virtually unknown to the hearing population.

"An Examination of Internet Use and Access to Health Information by the Deaf," by Rintamaki and Elizabeth Karras, PhD, postdoctoral fellow and assistant visiting professor in health communication, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, is currently in press in the journal Health Communication.

The study is based on information gleaned from focus groups of deaf subjects, who discussed their difficulties operating in the health information and medical care spheres.

Rintamaki says, "The culturally Deaf (those who are deaf from birth or became so early in life) number only about 517,000 in the U.S. but already have poorer health than the general population. For many reasons they confront significant barriers in accessing the health, safety and other community supports they need to sustain health and well-being.

"People may assume the Internet would be a natural boon for anyone who is deaf," he says, "but while it is useful for those who became deaf or hard of hearing later in life -- those for whom English is a first language -- it is often not as useful for those who are culturally Deaf."

Rintamaki, an associate professor in the UB Department of Communication in the College of Arts and Sciences, has conducted extensive research into the problems the deaf confront when seeking health care and information, and the ways in which they use or don't use the Internet to get either.