All the right signs
Paramedic Jenna Kelley tries to make people’s worst day a bit better. And her new initiative, teaching Auslan sign language to healthcare workers, promises to do just that for the deaf and hard of hearing community.
Jenna graduated from Australian Catholic University (ACU) with a Bachelor in Paramedicine in 2021 and has been working with Ambulance Victoria (AV) in Cowes ever since.
She started AV Healthy Signs, an initiative which encourages AV employees to learn Auslan to improve their patient interactions, after being introduced to the language at ACU.
While still a relative beginner herself, Jenna had noticed that several of her hard of hearing patients were finding it difficult to lip read and interact with staff wearing PPE.
“For the deaf and hard of hearing community, a medical emergency is a very frightening time – especially during the pandemic with people wearing masks,” she says.
“They don’t know what is going on, and patients need to know what’s happening every step of the way. If we can communicate with them in their language, it makes their time less stressful.”
Paramedics can ask their patient what they prefer – written notes, sign language, lip reading, or even phone apps that translate speech into writing or visual signs – and communicate accordingly. And they can organise an interpreter at the hospital to make the transition a little easier.
It’s incredibly reassuring for a hearing-impaired patient to know that frontline staff can understand them and convey the information they need.
“You can see that utter relief in the patient’s eyes,” says Jenna. “It shows that we’re trying to bridge that communication gap as well, because there is still that gap.”
Healthy Signs, a collaboration between AV and an external Auslan provider, offers courses to paramedics at a discounted rate.
The initiative has been welcomed by Jenna’s colleagues, and she received an Ambulance Victoria Community Engagement Award in 2021 for introducing Auslan to the service.
A unique language
Jenna first discovered Auslan as a first-year paramedicine student in 2018.
“I did a basic introduction to Auslan course at ACU, and I loved it,” recalls Jenna, who has a background in emergency management and emergency medicine and studied at ACU on an Ambulance Victoria scholarship.
“It’s something I was just drawn to. I thought it would be a positive thing for me to have as a healthcare worker. Another tick in the box for gaining employment as well.”
Learning Auslan was like learning a new language.
“The language of deaf people is unique,” Jenna explains. “You drop words out, there are signs for different things… You’re having a conversation, but it’s not like having a conversation in English.”
She continued to learn Auslan alongside her studies and set up the Melbourne Auslan Society at university, helping provide her peers with access to the language.
“I started the Auslan club because I saw a knowledge gap for healthcare workers. We work with people who communicate either through lip reading or sign language, and I saw a need there.”
In her final year at ACU, Jenna worked with senior lecturer Richard Galeano to include an Auslan component in paramedicine tutorials nationally.
“My tutor and I recorded a short scenario signing to each other as a patient and a paramedic – voice off, entirely signed,” she says.
“I asked her for her symptoms, her medical history, what medications she took. I was explaining to her what was happening, what I was going to be doing – basically a whole scenario of walking into someone’s house, finding out what’s going on, getting her into the ambulance and on to hospital.
“That was really exciting, and I hope that continues as part of the curriculum for all healthcare students at ACU. Every healthcare worker should have that knowledge under their belts.”
Bridging the gap
Back on Phillip Island, Jenna’s hopes for AV Healthy Signs are similarly high.
The program is still evolving, but the plan is to offer an introductory Auslan course online, one hour a week for six weeks. Level 1, 2 and 3 classes and paramedic-specific content will be available too.
All online courses will be accessible 24/7 and will cover deaf grammar and culture, and opportunities will be provided to practise live online and in person when it’s safe to do so.
There’s been “really good uptake” so far, and Jenna says the more healthcare workers who learn to communicate with diverse communities, the better, as it helps make the service more inclusive.
“I wear a little badge when I’m working that says ‘Learning Auslan’ and I’ve had paramedics at hospitals asking me, ‘How do I ask my patient if they’re in pain?’ or ‘How do they ask for more medication?’
“I’ve taught them some basics as we’re waiting, and I teach people on the way to the hospital as well. Then they sign up and do the course because they want to know more – so it’s a win-win.”
Ultimately, Jenna would like to see Auslan being offered to paramedics across Australia as “part of our culture and part of our training”. It’s a challenge due to the number of ambulance services across the country and the regional variations in sign language – but she’s biding her time.
“The goal is to have Auslan classes offered like continuing professional development through AHPRA (Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency), and for people to get points for it so they’re more motivated to use it.
“But I’m waiting for the right moment to broach that with management, and to see if there’s some way we can collaborate and work with other states as well.”
It’s quite the objective, and you can’t help but wonder where Jenna gets her drive. Perhaps the answer lies, all too simply, in her approach to life.
“I’m Buddhist, and the whole philosophy of Buddhism is to ease other beings’ suffering, whether they’re human or animal. That’s where that love comes from and that desire to really try to make everyone’s worst day – when they call the ambulance, it’s the worst day for them – a bit better.”
Interested in becoming a paramedic? Explore ACU’s paramedicine courses.