Could Have Died Because She Needed an Ambulance and was Deaf/HoH.

(Posted with permission. )


It’s 2 am, when suddenly you find yourself unable to communicate clearly. Your words come out incoherent and hard to understand, including in text. What do you do?

Let’s assume for the moment that the general answer is call an ambulance.

Plot twist. You are Hard of Hearing or Deaf, and so cannot call someone on the phone since you are unable to hear what someone might be saying to you, and again, you cannot currently communicate coherently.

What do you do?

This isn’t a theoretical question for some people. Late last night, while browsing Facebook, a post from a friend came to my and many others attention when a friend posted a status that was impossible to understand. None of us at the time were local to where this friend lived, and unable to physically go in person to check on the person. Calling them is out of the question since again, they cannot hear enough over the phone to be able to respond to questions. Their ability to type is compromised so that Facebook messages are difficult to get complete and accurate information. Still this was the only way available to make it possible for someone to call the ambulance on their behalf, provide the dispatch with the necessary information.

I want you to take a moment to imagine that. Imagine your long-term health, the severity of your symptoms, hell, your survival is counting on someone being awake at 2am, on Facebook, seeing your post, figuring out what is going on, and being in a position to be able to contact emergency services on your behalf. If you are someone who uses Facebook frequently, consider how often certain posts completely fail to be seen by anyone, while others are quickly picked up. If you run an online based business or rely on crowdsourcing and exposure, consider how reliable Facebook algorithms are? How often the posts you most hope get seen do?

But What About TTY or One of Those Alerts Services like on Grace and Frankie? Don’t they just send emergency services if you call and hang up?

While a TTY line or an alert service would have been potentially helpful here, what many people fail to realize is that these are paid subscription-based services and as far as the people currently involved are aware (and yes they’ve tried to get this information) they are not covered by disability.

ODSP, SSI, and many other forms of disability financial support, while better than the alternative, are essentially being doomed to poverty. Many of us need to rely on generosity, charity, and begging to get by, and so can’t afford a lot of basic accessibility services. The cost is further significantly higher than what phone companies will occasionally charge to make it possible for you to get location tracking for 911, or some of those 911 related options that companies try to get away with charging.

If you can’t afford it, too bad.

As to the question of sending emergency services to every call, while theoretically this is the supposed occurrence, the rise in pocket dials, misdials, and so on through cellphones and smart phones, make that a lot less consistent.

There is also a safety issue to consider.

The most common first responders at a scene in such an event are Police, and no matter the intentions involved, there is an unfortunately high occurrence of clashes between Police and the Deaf/Hard of Hearing community.

Perception Matters

Imagine for a moment that you are a dispatcher. You get a call and on the other end is a person who is yelling what sounds like gibberish into the phone. It’s late at night. Around the time that many bars are closing.

You try to ask a question, but don’t get a response. Perhaps the person on the other end is repeating the same nonsense phrase over and over. Maybe they just hang up.

Note, I mention nonsense phrases because this particular case involved Aphasia, where the person believes they’re saying one thing but what comes out is completely different, or in this case cannot actually find the word they need and keep finding the wrong one come out when they search for it. Another alternative is loud slurred speech, which also has its own connotations such as drunkenness or being high.

Is your first thought going to be: Oh no, a person who cannot hear is having a possible medical emergency. Send the paramedics! Or is it more likely to be: Drunk person prank calling. Someone calling the cops on a drunk and belligerent person but not wanting to draw attention to themselves. A person being drunk and disorderly. Someone trying to call for help because they’re being attacked or because they are witnessing someone being attacked and they’re unable to provide more detail.

You relay the following to the Police. They try to buzz into the building with no response. They try to call with no response. Finally, they get to the door where after banging on it, there is no answer. Assuming they don’t go away since they can’t hear any indication of something going on inside, and instead they break down the door.

They approach a person who maybe sees them, maybe not, but if not, they refuse to turn around when you call. Or perhaps they do see you and are startled, try to beg for help but all that comes out is loud incoherencies. Because of the volume it comes off as aggressive. Perhaps the cops think the person is mentally unstable, and guns already out, they shoot. Maybe they don’t but they instead tackle you. Not understanding why you are being attacked, you try to fight back. Maybe because of the disability that caused the hearing loss in the first place, your hip is broken from the impact.

Even if you are somehow ok, you are now being restrained, in handcuffs, with no way to tell the officers that you are hard of hearing and oh by the way, also possibly having a stroke. Maybe they take you to the hospital. Maybe they take you to be processed at the station, or to the drunk tank.

EVEN if NONE of the extremes described happen, you still just had to deal with Police breaking into your place and scaring the shit out of you while you are currently freaking out because you don’t know what’s going on and have no way to explain anything either. At least if you had been able to hear, you could have demonstrated an effort to respond to the questions over the phone. You could have modulated your tone more effectively. You could have answered the buzzer or door, any of which could have presented a clear signal that this wasn’t a case of aggression but a medical emergency.

At least being able to USE a TTY line would have instantaneously communicated to the dispatch that the person in question was hard of hearing, which could be then communicated to the responders.

The friend in question has had unpleasant encounters with Police before. I myself witnessed an interaction between her and a police officer at a public discussion event, where he knew she was Hard of Hearing and the officer still kept reacting to her as if she was “yelling at him” until I was literally forced to remind him that she wasn’t actually aware that she was speaking as loudly as she was. That because of the way her own hearing loss took place, that she had a harder time adjusting to the loss of her own ability to hear herself speak.

At another time, she was nearly tazed and arrested by Police who were yelling at her as she tried to explain that she couldn’t understand what they were saying. It didn’t de-escalate until she finally physically pulled her hearing aids out of her ears and placed them into her outraised palms and they finally registered what it was she was telling them.

I am Deaf. If I don't respond it is because I can't hear you

It’s not a coincidence that the single best-selling item on my Redbubble store is a design I created for friends of mine to be able to wear to protests that clearly identify them as being unable to hear. I made it after several friends mentioned their terror that they would go to a protest, fail to hear an order, and be shot without ever knowing why. After reading and hearing several stories about people who died because of those exact situations.

My friend was lucky. Her post was seen. We were able to call an ambulance on her behalf, communicate her needs. But we also had to make her walk to the lobby of her building while in a confused and anxious state, not sure entirely of what was going on, because she had no way to buzz in the emergency personnel or any way to contact a super for help.

I also spent the next hour alternating between calling hospitals to let them know my friend was on her way, and waiting to get confirmation that the ambulance was actually able to get to her. That she hadn’t collapsed on the way to the lobby, or otherwise been disoriented and unable to get to the ambulance.

She was in enough of a state of confusion that she forgot to bring her walker with her and had to borrow one while at the hospital. What if she had collapsed outside in the cold? We’ve had sub-zero temperatures across the province this week. What if she had fallen and in addition to having whatever was going on with her, she broke something too?

It was over half an hour between when she posted the status and when one of us was able to get on the phone with an ambulance. What if it had been too late by then?

After extensive testing, they diagnosed her with a mini-stroke, a TIA. What if it had been a more serious stoke? What if that thirty minutes of delay meant that she lost brain function? Lost her life?

A very good friend of mine almost died this week and why? Because she needed an ambulance and was deaf.

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Could Have Died Because She Needed an Ambulance and was Deaf/HoH.
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4 thoughts on “Could Have Died Because She Needed an Ambulance and was Deaf/HoH.

  1. 1

    My partner is HoH and autistic (mute under stress), and they attend school 2 hours away. I happened to be with them when they were having a medical emergency a month ago, but what if it were during the weekdays when we’re apart? It’s absolutely dystopian.

  2. 2

    Ania, thank you for this article. I have no idea how I arrived at this website, but I am glad I did. I am not going to pretend I am a holier-than-thou full-time social champion/supporter of the deaf (just because I am writing to you now), or any other physically challenged (hopefully that is a correct thing to say) type of person, but I am a champion of people. And people have different needs. It’s important that as a society, we recognize these needs, and then behave according to that recognition. I added this article to my Pocket, and am thinking of a way I can share it in the most meaningful way. Please continue to be you, and enlighten the ignorant (including me) so that we can do better, and encourage others to do the same.

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