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Overcoming Barriers Facing the Deaf Community Confronting Treatment and Recovery Programs 


Individuals who are Deaf and use sign language to communicate are confronted with many barriers accessing and engaging in substance use disorder treatment and recovery support services. Furthermore, service providers are not always aware of established practices suited for this population who, according to the National Institutes of Health, have a number of risk factors for substance use disorders. 

To help address this within the state of Kentucky and across the country, Michelle Niehaus, LCSW, asked the Opioid Response Network (ORN) for support. In response, Sharon Hesseltine, the South East ATTC Technology Transfer Specialist for Kentucky, developed a plan to meet Ms. Niehaus’ needs working alongside ORN partner organization C4 Innovations and two new ORN consultants. The result was a four-part learning collaborative for providers in the state and overall capacity building for the ORN to better address the barriers facing Deaf sign language users. The webinars are available and free of charge to anyone through ORN.

“You can’t provide effective treatment or recovery services for Deaf sign language users without effective communication. And relying on an interpreter alone is not nearly enough,” said Niehaus. “Providers need to be prepared with nuanced, person-centered approaches before a Deaf person presents for help. The webinars produced by the ORN are an excellent foundational tool to get them started.”

The series covers the impact language has on access to and use of treatment services; how to serve individuals through interpreters; and practices to move people through recovery. Substance use treatment providers who view the series will increase their capacity to identify the communication and clinical needs of Deaf individuals entering treatment. 

More than 700,000 Kentuckians identify as Deaf or hard of hearing, representing 16 percent of the state’s population. Niehaus serves as the Program Administrator for Deaf and Hard of Hearing Services at the Kentucky Division for Behavioral Health, which strives for equitable access to quality services for persons with hearing loss and their families. Kentucky is one of only nine states with a Deaf Services Coordinator. Three years ago, the state established a task force to address substance use disorder treatment and recovery needs within this population. One of its first activities was to conduct a study with the Kentucky School of Alcohol and Other Drug Studies. As Niehaus explained, “we found that most providers do not modify treatment for individuals who are Deaf or hard of hearing, leading to a lack of retention in programs and, in general, creates additional, unnecessary barriers.” Her request to the ORN for education and training was born, in part, from this research.

The four-part series was developed collaboratively between the state, ORN partners and the two consultants ORN onboarded at the request of Niehaus: Deb Guthmann, Ed.D, Founding Director of the Substance Use Disorder Program for Individuals who are Deaf or Hard of Hearing, and Jesse Wilson, Program Coordinator for the Recovery Network for the Deaf, Hard of Hearing and Hearing loss Program (RNDHH) with the Center For Family Services. To access the recorded webinars, visit:

  • Webinar 1 - Introduction to Serving Deaf Individuals
  • Webinar 2 - Impact of Language on Access to and Use of Treatment
  • Webinar 3 - Adapting Treatment
  • Webinar 4 - Resources and Next Steps

  • To plan a training about treating substance use disorders in your community, click here to submit a request.