Nurses can be a lot of things — men, women, transgender, non-binary, mothers, fathers, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, you get the picture. But can a nurse be deaf?  

The short answer to that is, of course, nurses can be deaf. Deaf and hard-of-hearing nurses have — and continue — to work in the healthcare field, making a difference caring for and treating patients. Nurses who have hearing challenges may use accommodations at work they are legally entitled to, or they may have varying tools that can assist them to do their jobs, but working as a deaf nurse is very possible. Read on for more information about what it takes to be a deaf nurse, along with resources for deaf and hard-of-hearing nurses. 

One deaf nursing student’s story

Britny Bensman, 27, from Columbus, Ohio, is a certified clinical medical assistant working in family medicine who is currently pursuing her LPN. She attends Hondros College of Nursing in Westerville, Ohio, the school’s first-ever deaf student, and expects to graduate in September of 2019. 

Although she was born with full hearing, Bensman explains that her parents first noticed that something “was off” with her hearing around the time she was three years old. It was discovered that she lost her hearing from unknown causes and is now profoundly deaf, with a complete loss of hearing in her right ear. She is able to hear about 85% in her left ear with the assistance of a hearing aid and notes that thanks to her parents starting speech therapy with her as soon as they discovered her condition, she is able to speak well. 

Bensman also learned ASL from attending Gallaudet University, a move she says she is “extremely grateful” to have made. After getting her LPN, Bensman plans to get her RN, then her MSN/NP. “I want to become a provider for the Deaf community for them to visit someone they can trust and knowing that I know ASL, there will be no communication barriers,” she explains. “Patient education and preventive care are extremely important to me. Many deaf patients do not get all the resources because of lack of communication, interpreters, and closed captioning.”  

Bensman’s challenges began with getting into nursing school. She applied to many different schools before finally gaining acceptance at Hondros, who she says immediately got her the accommodations she needed to succeed, with two interpreters, two captionists, and a borrowed hard-of-hearing stethoscope that she can use through graduation. “Hondros gave me hope,” she says. “Hondros opened my door. Hondros will allow me to be the nurse I am meant to be.”

Over the course of her now five years working as a medical assistant, Bensman has also faced some challenges on the job. From fears that hiring managers would dismiss her application if she revealed she was hard-of-hearing to having trouble relying on her go-to method of lip reading in patients with accents or who had facial hair, the nurse-to-be has had to do a lot of problem-solving over the years.

For instance, when she noticed patients getting frustrated when she couldn’t pronounce medications with the letter “s” in them, she came up with the solution to having the patient read along with her from the computer. “I noticed that it makes the patient feel like they have the attention they needed knowing that I got them involved with patient care,” Bensman comments.

Unfortunately, there was a time, not even in our distant past, when the world of healthcare was not so welcoming to deaf nurses. In 2002, John Hopkins Hospital withdrew a job offer for a nurse named Lauren Searls after they found out she would need ASL interpreters. Fortunately, however, Searls did not accept that her treatment was acceptable and fought back, eventually winning her court case, getting a new job offer at a different hospital, and paving the way for other nurses like her. 

Today, there are resources that exist to help nurses who are deaf continue to work in healthcare or pursue employment in the healthcare field. For instance, the Association of Medical Professionals with Hearing Loss (AMPHL) works to advocate for and assist deaf and hard-of-hearing medical professionals with a conference, job opportunities, and mentorship programs. 

On the job, Bensman uses tools to help her in her role of caring for patients. 

  • She has a Video Relay Service called Purple via ASL for her to call out and receive messages to and from providers, pharmacies, patients, or insurance companies. 
  • To obtain vital signs, she uses an automatic blood pressure machine as well as a special stethoscope made specifically for deaf and hard of hearing people. 
  • Her facility also has an interpreter who comes to staff meetings and some of her coworkers have learned ASL as well, although she notes that they are often too busy for her to be able to call on them.