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Linguistic Evolutions: Making Cannabis More Accessible for Deaf Patients

Deaf people deserve the same information about cannabis that their Hearing counterparts take for granted.

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Linguistic Evolutions: Making Cannabis More Accessible for Deaf Patients
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American Sign Language is like any language. There are slang terms and accents, and the dialect can change based on the situation. What this means is that when a Deaf person tries to communicate without an interpreter present, and they are given a piece of paper and pen to try to have a conversation, they are put in a situation of trying to communicate in a different language. So, when a Deaf person walks into a dispensary for the first time, their only choice is quickly relaying all questions or concerns without the proper tools.

Even in dispensaries with budtenders fluent in American Sign Language, there are major barriers for Deaf people. For example, there are no signs for Endocannabinoid System, topicals, distillate, hemp, terpenes, and other terminology that makes it easier for anyone to understand the possible benefits of cannabis. Another hindrance is that when a Deaf person calls medical professionals to get their patient certification (in states where medical is legal) or goes into an appointment without some type of interpretation service, their ability to discuss medicinal benefits is very inhibited. 

The discussions may not even occur if the person on the other end of the phone or other side of the desk refuses to acquiesce in even the slightest way. David Cabral, activist in the Deaf and cannabis communities and founder of the National Cannabis Disability Association, faces this discrimination often. He has been denied paper and pen to relay information, and has had people hang up on him before the phone interpretation service has a chance to connect him. Hearing people, even those fluent in ASL, are often ignorant to the ways Deaf people communicate, and avoiding embarrassment is often enough of a reason to avoid the dispensary experience altogether.

Dispensaries, especially those in recreational states, often train staff to run “efficiently”, to take care of customers in a brisk but beneficial way. This doesn’t work when the customer must spell out “endocannabinoid system”, has no way of hashing out the nuances of different strains, or can’t discern how topicals or tinctures work; the signs for these items don’t exist in ASL. Furthermore, companies aren’t offering any type of training for accessible communication.

Cabral tells High Times that hiring Deaf people to consult in the budtender training process can really help. Living in Boston, he doesn’t see much Deaf representation in the local cannabis space, but he knows there are Deaf people who want to work in cannabis. He suggests hiring Deaf people in grows, manufacturing, and ancillary businesses; he says that one of the main reasons for not seeing more Deaf people in cannabis is financial.

If they are on Disability aid, they are only receiving enough money to pay for rent and necessities. Nothing is leftover for their medicine (cannabis), let alone socializing at cannabis networking events. Cabral is working on getting more Deaf people involved at these events by having interpreters present, and his long-term goals include seeing Deaf-owned cannabis business owners on panels and as sponsors and vendors.

His shorter-term goals are to supply education to the cannabis community to allow for more accessibility to the Deaf community through things like having Video Remote Interpreting (VRI), Video Phone and Closed Captions for dispensary videos available in the retail stores. Through educational workshops and webinars, he wants to offer accessible ways for companies to train staff how to interact with interpreters, and even simple phrases in ASL that could facilitate a basic conversation with a Deaf person.

Even having a rudimentary understanding of ASL would be a good start for those companies who don’t have the resources to implement the other tools. Stephanie Kerns, a cannabis activist and artist who has worked in the retail cannabis setting since 2011, says that budtenders are not receiving proper training. Having practiced ASL for several years, she was often the budtender a Deaf customer sought out if possible.

Kerns says she saw Deaf customers feeling frustration over lack of attention given, and that in such a sensitive situation, patience is key. Having the budtenders learn 10-15 signs that would help with communication would offer a more inclusive environment. Hiring a Deaf person to teach the signs, and to offer a type of sensitivity training would also allow for safe discussion about products.

Adding more signs to ASL to cover these terms would also go a long way in making communication easier for both Deaf and hearing people. One professional interpreter, Renae Erbaccia*, saw this need when trying to discuss the medicinal properties of cannabis. She saw the need for a comprehensive glossary of cannabis terms, an augmentation of ASL that would break down some of these barriers.

From that realization sprang a project called Signs for the Times, a collaboration between Dr. Regina Nelson of the educational cannabis nonprofit The ECS Therapy Center and a team of Deaf professionals. Nelson was enlisted to teach the team members about the basics of cannabis, with the goal to create a video glossary of cannabis terms that is available in every dispensary. The team of Deaf professionals is led by Ryan Kobylarz, PhD.

“Ryan and Regina Nelson will be meeting soon to establish a game plan to allow this project to flourish,” says Erbaccia.

Unfortunately, both Erbaccia and Cabral’s projects are lacking in funding and attention from the rest of the cannabis community. Because of the lack of fundraising, Erbaccia says the project hasn’t taken off as expected, but things are still moving forward. Cabral hasn’t received even a quarter of the needed amount on his Go Fund Me page, but that isn’t slowing him down.

Because cannabis is an emerging industry, things are moving fast, and Cabral understands that there is a lot of work to be done in a short amount of time. For the Deaf community to embrace cannabis, they must have the same opportunities to apply for licensing as growers and manufacturers. Accessibility barriers exist in all areas of the cannabis space, far beyond the medical and retail setting, and Cabral is doing everything in his power to change that.

By having something like a video chat available (one that allows for some sort of closed captioning or interpretation inclusion) for customer service or tech support, Cabral points out, would be a big bonus for Deaf people. Right now, there are no options for a Deaf person who wants to call about product issues or ask questions about how to work something like a new vape pen. He says that hearing people assuming Deaf people can read something that doesn’t have a translation in ASL can result in them avoiding cannabis in any way. 

“People can’t understand to read that, to understand that, and they’re just going to avoid [purchasing or participating in cannabis] in my experience,” Cabral tells High Times.

*Name has been changed

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