As limits to women’s reproductive rights swirl in the national news, one researcher at Syracuse University is engaged in a groundbreaking nationwide study on the reproductive health experiences of Deaf and hard of hearing women. Corrine Occhino, assistant professor in the Department of Languages, Literatures and Linguistics in the College of Arts and Sciences (A&S) with a dual appointment in the School of Education, is working to determine the obstacles Deaf women encounter in receiving appropriate reproductive healthcare services and health information.
“We know from previous research that Deaf people have a lot of extra barriers to accessing healthcare that hearing people don’t,” explains Occhino, who is director of the Multimodal Language Lab in A&S and program coordinator for the American Sign Language and Deaf Studies program in the School of Education. “Our goal is to identify problem areas so that we can improve health care communication for Deaf and hard of hearing people.”
Occhino joined Syracuse University in fall 2021. She previously ran the Multimodal Language Lab in the Center for Culture and Language at Rochester Institute of Technology, where she became engaged in research with colleague Tiffany Panko, director of the school’s Deaf Health Lab.
Occhino and Panko received funding from the Society of Family Planning to conduct a nationwide survey to gather insight on the pregnancy experiences and reproductive healthcare use of women who are deaf or hard of hearing. Through the survey and interviews, researchers will identify emergent themes and patterns of experience among Deaf and hard-of-hearing women, as well as their knowledge of, and opinions on, reproductive health.
“We hope our findings lead to the development of culturally and linguistically appropriate educational interventions for healthcare providers and promote access to information and effective use of the reproductive healthcare system.”
Occhino says Deaf and hard of hearing individuals typically communicate with their health care providers through an interpreter using American Sign Language (ASL), through speech and hearing aids, or through writing. One pattern that has emerged early in the research is the disparity of Deaf and hard of hearing people not receiving their first choice of birth control from their health care provider.
“Among hearing individuals, the primary reason for not getting their preferred contraception was lack of insurance coverage or high cost,” she says. “But within the Deaf and hard of hearing people, they frequently didn’t know why they weren’t given their primary choice. That’s a very small piece of the puzzle, but we think it points to how specific communication about particulars often falls through the cracks with Deaf and hard of hearing women, because they don’t always have the same kinds of access to having one-on-one conversations with their doctors or getting the kinds of explanations that you might get as a hearing person when you go into the OB/GYN.”
This has repercussions, she says. A 2020 study found that Deaf and hard-of-hearing women are 67 percent more at-risk of becoming pregnant unintentionally. While a portion of the survey deals with unplanned pregnancy and abortion, Occhino says respondents have been reluctant to share that information. “A lot of people are not comfortable talking about those experiences, especially in today’s climate where it’s become very politicized,” she says.
Occhino and Panko are currently analyzing their data with plans to write and present findings this fall at the American Public Health Association (APHA 2022) Annual Meeting. “We hope our findings lead to the development of culturally and linguistically appropriate educational interventions for healthcare providers and promote access to information and effective use of the reproductive healthcare system,” she says.
Occhino is also engaged in a separate project to develop resources for Deaf refugees in the Syracuse area to learn ASL and English. With a mini-grant from the Engaged Humanities Network, Occhino is working with a local non-profit organization, Deaf New Americans Advocacy Inc., to identify and provide services to the Deaf New American community both for teaching ASL and English. “We’re working to create a bilingual literacy program,” she says.
By Renee Levy