988 Lifeline Launches American Sign Language Services, Revolutionizing Crisis Support

988 Lifeline Launches American Sign Language Services, Revolutionizing Crisis Support

Contributed photo: At center, Ruth Maxie receives a kiss on the cheek from her daughter, Karen Pickeral (left), and her granddaughter, Amie Knowles (right). Maxie recently had a cochlear implant to aid her hearing.

By Amie Knowles

September 15, 2023

My Grandma just got home from a cochlear implant surgery. Once activated, the electronic device—consisting of a microphone, speech processor, and transmitter—will provide her with a sense of sound. 

She’s doing great, and in about a month, she’ll begin therapy for sound recognition. It’ll be incredible to communicate more clearly with her; for as long as I can remember, she’s been hard of hearing.

How hard of hearing, you might ask? In her hearing test to see if she’d be a good candidate for a cochlear implant, the doctors discovered she could only hear six out of every 100 words. 

Over the years, she’s been able to get by pretty well, simply by reading lips. Most times, she gets the general gist of the conversation, which is great. Except this one time, when she asked a friend how someone else was doing.

“They died,” the friend said.

“Well that’s nice,” my sweet Grandma replied with a smile. 

Thankfully, the friend knew about Grandma’s condition and found humor in the misunderstanding. But the circumstance opens a broader conversation about communication, hearing loss, and the available options to have a meaningful chat.

There’s good news. A new communication option recently launched for individuals with hearing loss and deafness who wish to get in touch with a crisis counselor. The 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline has added American Sign Language (ASL) services nationwide.

How The Service Helps People With Hearing Loss

Since the July 2022 launch, the 988 Lifeline (funded by a nearly $1 billion investment by the Biden-Harris Administration) has received more than 5.5 million calls, texts, and chats. With the addition of ASL services, the lifeline will be able to interact with even more people.

Dr. Stephanie Logan, DeafLEAD CEO, explained in a Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) media package that there are notable differences between ASL and English. The crisis counselors interacting with deaf and hard of hearing individuals are aware of those nuances. 

“When talking about deaf people using ASL, American Sign Language, that is their native language. That is their first language. But ASL is not English. ASL has its own grammar, its own syntax, its own structure,” Logan signed. 

Communicating in a way that those in need of a chat understand is a crucial element to the service. 

“The expectation is that all deaf people understand full-sentence English grammar writing. And ASL is a separate language,” Logan signed. “So we need accessibility established that are using ASL as their language. And so for 988, that is very important.”

While ASL phone services are available, the communication options don’t stop there. Texting is also a possibility. 

Expanding the Narrative on Job Opportunities

Tyler Hannsz, DeafLEAD director of crisis chat and text services, expressed that 988’s ASL expansion aids in a variety of ways. Not only does the expansion help individuals with hearing loss communicate with a crisis counselor, it also provides job opportunities for workers who are deaf or hard of hearing. 

“Anyone can text 988 or reach out to 988 Chat and Text. The thing that makes it really special and unique is that it’s a situation where we have deaf crisis counselors who are providing services to hearing folks,” Hannsz said. “Those people who reached out may never know it, but we’ve kind of taken that narrative, that dynamic, and we have absolutely flipped it on its head.”

Hannsz noted that the deaf agency does two major things. First, DeafLEAD provides services to hearing people. Second, the agency provides employment opportunities to deaf individuals in a field that, he said, “habitually has been gate-kept.”

“Taking down those barriers and pushing back against the norm is something, as an agency, that we do at least every day,” Hannsz said.

Expanding the Lines of Communication

With 988’s expansion, options to get help are even more plentiful and readily available. No matter which chatting option suits callers best, they’re welcome to reach out.

To connect to a trained 988 Lifeline counselor in ASL, callers can click the “ASL Now” button on 988lifeline.org. In the coming weeks, the option to call 988 from a videophone will become available. In the meantime, SAMHSA noted that callers can dial 1-800-273-TALK (8255) from their videophone to reach ASL services.

Texting is available simply by sending a message to 988.

  • Amie Knowles

    Amie is Dogwood's community editor. She has been in journalism for several years, winning multiple awards from the Virginia Press Association for news and features content. A lifelong Virginia resident, her work has appeared in the Martinsville Bulletin, Danville Register & Bee and NWNC Magazine.

Related Stories
Share This