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Tablet project increases access for deaf and hard of hearing clients

May 29, 2020
by Markeshia Ricks

Connecticut Mental Health Center is closer than ever to 100 percent accessibility for its deaf and hard of hearing clients, even during a global pandemic. In fact, it might be because of the pandemic that CMHC has made such strides.

It all started just over a month ago when Melissa Dennis expressed her concern during the early days of CMHC’s response to the COVID-19 crisis.

Dennis, a community clinician who serves as CMHC’s coordinator of Deaf and Hard of Hearing Services, asked during a daily team meeting what was going to be done to provide telehealth services for her clients.

She has a caseload of about 25 deaf and hard of hearing clients. Some use American Sign Language; others rely on hearing aids and cochlear implants. Coming to CMHC for group sessions was out of the question. Talking by phone could also prove challenging.

Dennis was deeply concerned that without some kind of intervention, her clients would have an even harder time coping during a pandemic.

“My clients already tend to feel isolated,” she said. “They’re often the only people in their households who know sign language.” She said many families have their own form of gestural sign language that allows them to communicate. But it’s not the same as having a full fluid conversation. The absence of connection in their language "creates feelings of isolation and exacerbates anxiety and depression,” Dennis said.

A team brainstorm ensued that included Swapnil Gupta, MD and John Cahill, MD, psychiatrists who serve on Dennis’s team. And the idea to give each client a tablet was born. Using tablets would provide a visual means to connect with Dennis and with Dorothy Cennamo, CMHC’s sign language interpreter.

Dr. Cahill did the research and was able to find tablets for as low as $70 each. It also turned out that most clients had some level of Internet access; those who didn’t would need it. Given the funding restrictions in place, the team knew they would need a small grant to make their dream a reality. They turned to the CMHC Foundation, a small non-profit supporting organization that provides flexible funding for innovative projects that benefit CMHC clients. Soon, the order had been placed.

“One of the great things about the Foundation is that we can respond to needs quickly as long as the price is small,” said Kyle Pedersen, CMHC Foundation director. “Once they decided what they needed...we placed the order and the tablets arrived within a week.” The Foundation also covered the cost of purchasing wireless hotspots and prepaid cards.

Dennis said the plan is to use Microsoft Teams social groups online to allow clients to be able to attend group sessions and peer meetings from home. The tablets also allow Dorothy Cennamo, the staff interpreter, to be present for those who need her to communicate.

Cennamo said she is grateful that the Foundation was able to step in and support the tablet project. Though she’s been deemed essential staff who would ordinarily be at CMHC, Cennamo said she has a compromising health condition that’s requiring her to work from home.

She tried to imagine how deaf and hard of hearing clients coming to CMHC would feel if they arrived but could not communicate with anyone there--in part because Cennamo herself is not on-site, and also because everyone is wearing a face mask. The inability to read lips or the cues that come from facial gestures would likely feel foreign and possibly frightening for them, Cennamo said. Masks muffle speech, creating difficulties for hard of hearing clients, too.

“It’s very exciting to think we can do our work remotely,” she said. “I also think it’s safer for our clients not to come [to CMHC].”

Dr. Gupta said in an email that the tablet project “is true to the mission of a safety net organization like CMHC, caring for the most vulnerable individuals who fall through the cracks in every crisis.”

She credited Dennis and Cennamo for coming up with the idea because of their relentless advocacy for “access to quality medical and psychiatric care through advanced technology” for deaf and hard of hearing people.

Dennis said the tablet project put the team at the forefront of providing access to clients who are often confronted with barriers to care. Thanks to everyone’s quick action, CMHC’s deaf and hard of hearing clients are closer to 100 percent accessibility than they’ve ever been.

“The fact that we got these tablets in a month with all of our collaboration is great,” she said. “I know the clients are going to benefit from this tremendously.”

Connecticut Mental Health Center is a collaborative endeavor of the Connecticut Department of Mental Health & Addiction Services and the Yale Department of Psychiatry.

Submitted by Lucile Bruce on May 29, 2020