Drug addiction among the deaf: It’s a neglected problem

Hearing Health & Technology Matters
March 20, 2013

By Lily Weaver

Unfortunately, drug addiction is a problem that is believed to affect the deaf community even more than it affects the hearing community. Debra Guthmann, a former president of the National Association on Alcohol, Drugs, and Disability, estimates that one in seven deaf people in the United States suffers from substance dependency, as compared to one in ten hearing people.

Alcohol and Drug Abuse Weekly estimates that there are as many as 600,000 deaf addicts in the country, but that only a handful of them are receiving help. Why are so many deaf drug addicts shunning medical aid? Research suggests that it is due to a lack of understanding among health care workers of deaf culture and of the issues related to communication barriers.



Guthmann says that one of the reasons that so few deaf drug addicts are getting help for their addiction is the limited availability of adequately qualified interpreters. She points out that very few interpreter-training programs focus on specialized drug-related vocabulary, which makes it difficult for health workers to communicate with deaf people who have substance abuse issues.

Deaf drug addicts can become frustrated at having to explain what they are talking about as opposed to using the terms that they would use when conversing with their friends. This can lead them to abandon hope of receiving the aid that they require from medical professionals and to choose one of of two options: withdrawing from drugs without assistance or continuing to abuse substances.

Coming off narcotics can result in a host of unpleasant symptoms, including fatigue, nausea, sweating, and trembling. It can also be dangerous, even resulting in death in some circumstances. The fact that deaf people are shunning medical aid means that their lives are being put at risk.



A report published in the Journal of Drug Issues indicates that health facilities need to be psychologically, socially, and communicatively accessible to deaf addicts in order for them to feel comfortable going to them. Research cited by National Development and Research Institutes, Inc. demonstrates that deaf people not only have trouble obtaining appropriate aid, but also in some cases have trouble obtaining treatment at all.

For example, if a deaf person seeking assistance has to start by calling the treatment center on a voice telephone, that creates a problem at the very first stage of attempting to get help. The obstacles that deaf drug users face can often compound their situation and send them spiraling further into addiction.  



There are a number of steps that can be taken to make it easier to help deaf drug addicts. One technological option is to train staff to use phones with a TTY option. Furthermore, if interpreters are used, they should be registered with and certified by the National Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf. As Guthmann notes, Computer Assisted Real-time Transcription can be used to ensure that addicts understand everything that they are told by drug workers. This way, communication barriers that might discourage addicts from seeking help can be removed one by one.



It should not be surprising that deaf people have a higher portion of drug addicts within their ranks than does the population as a whole. The same is true of most minorities, especially those related to disability. However, deaf people face an added challenge because they are likely to be less informed than hearing people about the dangers of narcotics. Because of their deafness, they are less likely to hear about drugs by word of mouth from hearing people. Also, little of the anti-drug material designed for people who can hear is also presented in a way that caters to the communication needs of deaf people.

All of this means that extra care and attention must be provided to ensure that deaf drug abusers receive the help they need to overcome their addiction and turn their lives around. It appears that, as a relatively small group within society, they have fallen through the cracks to some extent. However, everybody deserves receive an equal level of medical care, whether they can hear or not. It is clear that more work needs to be done in this area to address the current inequality.


Lily Weaver is a freelance writer and mother of two who, after a personal tragedy, has spent a lot of her time working with the Coalition Against Drug Abuse.

  1. are there any interpreter counselors for drug and alcohol abuse in Palm beach county, Florida for the deaf and hearing impaired young adults

    1. Yes, there is. My name is Christina and I am a deaf recovery grateful addict. I have been clean since 3.23.11. I am currently living in Vancouver, Washington. I moved from Fort Myers Florida to Washington to go to a deaf treatment center here in Vancouver. The problem is that, the deaf addicts need more than treatment. After treatment we are suggested that we go to a 12 step program and most 12 step programs are not interpreted. We deaf addicts here in Vancouver are lucky because we have mtgs, and drug and alcohol treatment counselors here. There is a treatment center called Awake in California, and also in Minn. We are very limited but there is hope, and we must not give up.

  2. i have a neighbor with a 21 year old son who is deaf and has been arrested for alcohol and drug abuse–problem is that this family cannot address problem because there are not many interpreters in south florida, palm beach county to help communicate with this young man. thank you

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