Did you know that approximately 10 percent of Americans have hearing loss, making it the second most common disability in the United States?1 In Canada, there are 50 percent more people with reported hearing loss than those with vision problems.2 Hearing loss has many causes, including genetics, age, and injury. There are a number of disorders that affect both hearing and vision, including CHARGE syndrome that causes congenital deaf-blindness, and Usher syndrome that can lead to blindness in those who were born deaf.
Chances are that you will encounter many patients who are deaf and hard of hearing throughout the course of your optometric career. For me, I came across many of these patients when I worked as an ophthalmic assistant prior to coming to optometry school. As someone with a quieter disposition, I initially found it challenging to communicate with these patients effectively and efficiently. Fortunately, I knew enough basic sign language to be able to gauge how well my deaf patient was seeing the chart in front of her.
Unlike the Americans with Disabilities Act, which requires health care providers to provide interpreters, there is currently no such law in Canada. After my experiences, I decided to look in to how we can provide better care to patients who are deaf and hard of hearing given these barriers to communication.
It was during my research that I stumbled on a profile of Andrew Baker, O.D., a staff optometrist at the Department of Ophthalmology at Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary in Boston. Dr. Baker was born deaf because of Rh blood incompatibility. He graduated from the New England College of Optometry in 1983, and in effect, he became the first deaf person to become an optometrist in the United States. I was compelled to get in touch with Dr. Baker to learn more about his unconventional optometric practices.
Check out my interview with Dr. Baker below!
Adrienne Chan: Dr. Baker, you were the first deaf optometrist in the United States and for that, you are known to be somewhat of a pioneer in both the deaf community and the optometry profession. Why did you choose to pursue optometry? What was the most challenging aspect of becoming an optometrist?
Dr. Baker: I chose optometry because during my undergraduate education at the Rochester Institute of Technology through the National Technical Institute for the Deaf, I noticed many deaf people with a variety of vision problems, like Usher’s Syndrome, Konigsmark Syndrome, Rubella Retinopathy, and Kid’s Syndrome (very rare!). I thus pursued my career in optometry to learn more about many of the oculo-auditory syndromes present. Additionally, with my sign language skills, I’m able to communicate effectively with most of my deaf patients, which is so important.
The challenging aspect of becoming an optometrist was simply the fact that the education was very challenging and the schedule quite demanding!
Adrienne Chan: At Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary you specialize in providing vision care to the deaf and hard of hearing. You have also seen deaf patients from all over the world. Please tell us more about your unique practice and experiences. What was your most memorable and/or rewarding patient encounter?
Dr. Baker: It’s a very exciting position for me because I get to see a lot of rare cases, meet deaf people from all over the world with different sign language skills, and teach the resident ophthalmologists (2nd year) about the unique associations between vision and deafness and the various communication strategies. One cannot expect all deaf people to read lips, or even read and write! My most interesting patient encounter, well there were actually two, but both were deaf, blind, drunk and driving! People got hurt so they don’t drive anymore.
Adrienne Chan: What is the most common misconception about deaf culture? To all aspiring optometrists and practicing optometrists, what advice would you give them on how to provide better care for patients who are deaf or hard of hearing?
Dr. Baker: Most common misconception about deaf culture? This is somewhat of a difficult question to answer, because there are so many misconceptions. Historically speaking, it was believed that when deaf people couldn’t talk, they were deaf/mute, or deaf and dumb, even though they communicate very well with sign language! Myself, I was pulled over by an officer because I didn’t hear his sirens. I told him I was deaf and he was shocked that deaf people were driving cars! But deaf culture in itself is very rich and rewarding. They have their own Olympics, theaters, sports, and many conventions throughout the world. It’s always a lot of fun.
Adrienne Chan: The field of optometry is continuously evolving. Is there anything that you would like to change to make the profession better overall?
Dr. Baker: Yes, I would like optometrists to be able to do cataract surgeries and Lasik.
Adrienne Chan: Finally, for the deaf students who are reading this right now, what should they be aware of when considering a career in optometry or any other health related field?
Dr. Baker: For the deaf student who has very good grades and wishes to pursue any medically oriented fields, it really is important to have good oral skills. Many health care practitioners do not have the time, thus the patience, to write notes back and forth, although some of them do take the time to learn sign language. It has to be a two-way effort on both parts.
 Meador, H.E., Zazove, P. Health Care Interactions with Deaf Culture. JABFP 2005;18(3):218-222.
 The Demographics of Hearing Loss, The Hearing Loss Clinic. August 28, 2012. <http://www.hearingloss.ca/hearing-loss-demographics.html>
I would like to thank Dr. Baker for taking the time out of his busy schedule to answer my questions and for being so patient and kind about my ordeal with e-mail.
I also want to thank Matt Geller for getting me in touch with Dr. Baker in the first place. This article would not have been nearly as interesting or as fun to write without his help.