Saturday, April 10, 2010

Where the Disconnect Is Not

"We are building a bridge." This is the phrase I heard over and over again at the US Conference on African Immigrant Health (USCAIH) this week.

Last week, I blogged on the disconnect.
I wrote about how our nation’s leaders were unaware of language’s vital role in healing, how people don’t heal if they don’t understand, how interpreting in of itself is a profession with ethics and rules. The disconnect is there.

But here, with community leaders from all throughout the African Diaspora, the disconnect is not. Instead, there is a concerted effort to bring together aspects of all industries that help people--especially Africans--heal.

I arrived here Wednesday. Our first event was a meet and greet where attendees stood and introduced themselves, explaining what their interest was in African health and what they expected to get from the conference. I identified myself as Terena Bell with In Every Language, said I was here to represent the medical interpreting industry, that I had seen this disconnect and I was here to learn how we could fix it. When I sat down, almost every person in the room said “thank you” and some even clapped. An Ethiopian man walked up to me and instantly started talking about the difficulty of getting trained interpreters in Minneapolis, the need for continued training for those entering the profession. A man from Ghana stood up in front of everyone and talked about how interpreters for Muslim patients need to be culturally aware of faith’s role in healing—and better paid. At Harvard, people wondered why I was even there, had never thought of language as a health-related issue. Here, at the USCAIH, attendees were willing to join with the language industry in its fight.

I am not writing this to compare one conference to the next, or the Alliance for Health in the African Diaspora (the conference organizers) to Harvard. What Harvard does not know is clearly to Harvard’s loss. But, just as I had to point out where the disconnect is, I have to point out where the disconnect is not.

So what makes the difference? Why were these two audiences so different?

I have long said that there are two types of doctors in the world: those who want to make sure their patients understand and those who do not. Perhaps there are similarly two types of people: those who want to help people understand and those who do not. I am not calling the other group cold or cruel. But there are people in this world whose drive and desire to improve their world is innate, unavoidable, a moving, liquid force. I saw that this week in the faces of everyone here. Representatives from all across the African diaspora came together to share, to commune, to--as they put it--build a bridge. They, too, talked about breaking down silos, but they took the time to find out what those silos held.

Friday, I presented on language access for African LEP's. Every single person who heard about my topic said thank you, whether they attended my session or not. Dozens of people said, “We need that.” Most had interpreter stories of their own. A keynote on African Americans living with HIV even had a medical interpreter working from French to English. There is clearly no disconnect here.

But there is a need. They need us. And we need them. After what happened at Harvard, and after the warm reception I received here, I completely changed my presentation. It had initially been on where to get materials, how to get professional translation when materials weren’t there already. But meeting these people and learning more about how active they want to be in every area impacting African American health, I changed it.

There are three factors in LEP patient healing: the patient, the provider, and the language professional. All three must be on top of their game for healing to happen. Like our government, they must be in checks and balances with one another—they must all play their role, but they must also listen. For the patient, I discussed Title VI and HIPAA, the need to know you have a right to a professional, medical interpreter. For the provider, I discussed the need for cross-cultural training in universities and from hospital associations as CME’s. For the language professional, I said we must listen. We must listen to the patient and the provider to learn their need before we can address it. I told the people there that we could not do it without them, that if we as a language profession are wrong, then they must make us stop and listen.

And that’s the difference. As a language industry, we have been speaking, but at Harvard, no one had yet listened. I still believe what I wrote and I stand beside my words. But I also feel cool water flowing from around the rock. We must continue client education, but we must also allow our clients to educate us, listening to each other. If we are truly to build a bridge, we must meet each other in the river with our tools.