Nursing and Sign Language

Nurses General Nursing

Updated:   Published

Specializes in Psych (25 years), Medical (15 years).


Our very own spotangel currently has a great article, titled "I Feel Dizzy", which is about her providing excellent medical services to a hearing/speech impaired patient. Her article had me recalling my history of working with that population.

For about the first 2 1/2 years of my nursing career, from 1984-86, I worked as an LPN in a brand new 19 bed psych unit at Weed Rover Township Hospital. There were three recidivistic hearing impaired patients I got to know and I thought how cool it would be to be able to communicate with them in a method less encumbering then writing notes back and forth.

So, I took an American Sign Language (ASL or Ameslan) course at my local Larry & Curly Community College and learned the basics. For the remainder of my nursing career, I used sign language several times over the years, the last few being at Wrongway Regional Medical Center, in the past couple of years.


Just knowing how to fingerspell was enough if I didn't know the specific sign for something, but knowing some signs related to the medical profession really came in handy.

So, in my own hodgepodge Davey Do way, I'm starting a thread on nursing & sign language.



Please! Feel free to share any stories, information, or thoughts on working with this population! 

Specializes in Psych (25 years), Medical (15 years).

When I would first meet a hearing impaired a[tient, I would give them the "I" signi.png.d8297ad7a96be101b32ca36daaa04ce3.pngand then the "sign" sign. Numerous times , I saw  a look of relief on their face that said to me, "At last! Someone that I can communicate with!"

I am not that good at signing and I'll go into more detail later, but for now, that relief, that comfort, is  a point that I'd like to make.

It's relatively easy to tell if someone is in discomfort or pain from their actions and expressions and we as nurses respond accordingly. But I have seen some relief on a hearing impaired patient's face just because I asked them in sign language if they were in pain:



Specializes in Psych (25 years), Medical (15 years).

Sometimes I'd be called to some other units or the ER if a hearing impaired patient was receiving services. Being a male, the patients would often ask me if I was a doctor. "No", I would sign, "I'm a nurse".

The sign for nurse is the letter "N" tapped over the wrist in the area of the radial pulse:


 The sign for doctor is a "D" d.png.4aa736434b78cd0124476faffcc3e8ac.pngtapped over the pulse.

Specializes in Emergency Department.

And as in all things American and British are different. Apparently there is no BSL sign for doctor, it is spelled out.


I am interested in this as I worked with a girl who was fluent in BSL (her parents were deaf) and she was very much an advocate for that community.

Specializes in Private Duty Pediatrics.

I also took a basic course in sign language. I haven't used sign a whole lot - and I was never fast or fluent - but I could get basic ideas across. 

All nurses should learn to finger spell. Just learn the alphabet in ASL.

Buy a sign language book. I've used this one; A BASIC COURSE IN MANUAL COMMUNICATION, published by the Communicative Skills Program, 1984 edition.

OK, I'm old school. It's probably found on your smart phones now. But I like a book that the patient can see and use (after COVID).


Specializes in Education, FP, LNC, Forensics, ED, OB.

I learned to sign at age 14 (by choice).

I've used it many many times throughout my career.

@Davey Do is correct ... the sense of relief that comes over the faces of patients when they realize someone understands and can communicate is very moving.

Specializes in NICU, ICU, PICU, Academia.

I went to college with a deaf man waaaaay back in the early 70s and made it a point to always sit behind him in class and chapel so I could watch his interpreters (privately hired and paid- no ADA then). I learned the basics- but most importantly I learned the ALPHABET to spell what I couldn't sign.

While woefully out of practice today- I can still finger spell, and in a pinch have provided slow but accurate service to the hearing impaired in situations as needed.



*Finger spelling is extremely useful for silent communication in a variety of situations. 

Specializes in Psych (25 years), Medical (15 years).
13 hours ago, GrumpyRN said:

And as in all things American and British are different.

Your entire post was interesting, Grumpy. I didn't copy in its entirety just because my posts are cluttered enough as it is

The image which shows the British version of "nurse" is much like the ASL version of hospital, we merely use an "H" h.png.2faf32fcd3055a56ec51bb65a4bdff9a.png
and make a cross on our upper arm.

Your comment working with a girl brings back a couple of good memories. A wonderful unit secretary that I worked with at Wrongway had parents who were hearing impaired from birth. She was so very good at signing, and could read people's slight expressions like a book.                                 I strongly encouraged her to get certified and make good money, but she never did.

On one occasion, I was called to the adult male psych unit to sign for a hearing impaired patient. The unit secretary there, who also worked as a tech, told me, "That was so cool!" and she went to get certified in sign language. 

She informed me that that episode of me signing with the patient was her initial inspiration, which really warmed my heart.

Thanks for your post, Grumpy!

Specializes in Psych (25 years), Medical (15 years).
2 hours ago, Kitiger said:

All nurses should learn to finger spell. Just learn the alphabet in ASL.

Agreed. Learning the signs sitting in front of a mirror, fingerspelling can be learned in a very short amount of time. 

Your mention of a book caused me to bring down from my shelves the book that I had purchased:


It is a 1981 edition and it makes me recall a memory that I was not inspired only by my hearing impaired patients to learn sign. I met a young woman on the train from Anomaly to Chicago in March 1982, we exchanged a couple of letters, and I allowed my SIL to read one of them. 

I had written, "I was lying in my bed, practising fingerspelling in the dark..." and my my SIL advised me, "Don't send that. It sounds dirty!"

"But I really was practising fingerspelling in the dark!" I said.

So, I was learning sign by 1982 and do not recall the inspiration.

And you're correct, kitiger, there are all sorts of online resources out there, for I checked out some information while drawing my fingerspelling hands. I too am old school and have a bookcase full of novels, reference books, and the like that I continue to use.

Do you remember the inspiration for you to take a sign language course?

Specializes in Psych (25 years), Medical (15 years).
1 hour ago, sirI said:

I learned to sign at age 14 (by choice).

Learning sign as an adolescent?! I'd like to learn more about that, like your thoughts at the time, your motivation, etc.

Seeing that "sense of relief" causes a good feeling, doesn't it, sirI?

Specializes in Psych (25 years), Medical (15 years).
1 hour ago, meanmaryjean said:

*Finger spelling is extremely useful for silent communication in a variety of situations. 

Heh! Better than passing notes in class!

I too, am out of practise but suffice in a pinch, MMJ.

I later provided services to one of the hearing impaired patients I had as a patient in the mid '80's as a NS in a community mental health clinic in the early 'aughts. He had, at that time, an interpreter with him. He pointed at me, gave the interpreter a "dumb" sign and we all laughed.

Something I found  interesting about this patient: He resembled Elvis Presley and wore his hair in Elvis' '50's style. Although this patient had never heard Elvis sing, he could do some dance steps like Elvis did in the 1957 movie "Jailhouse Rock"!

Specializes in Psych (25 years), Medical (15 years).
3 hours ago, meanmaryjean said:

While woefully out of practice today...

...and I've only recently learned how to do animation.

@Kitiger @sirI @meanmaryjean and anybody else who would like to reply:




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