This blog is an archive for my research, interviews with designers and museum staff, and travel experiences as I explore multilingual design practices in Taiwan.
Fulbright research abroad in Taipei, Taiwan began in March 2021.   




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“Linguistic accessibility in medical care can have a dramatic impact on people’s quality of life.”

Language: English
Date: June 25, 2021
Listening to: 我的滑板鞋2017 by Nimo_8

Taiwan is now entering its second month of an island-wide lockdown. When Covid cases spiked in mid May, my roommates and I, veterans of the American Covid lockdown, immediately ran to the store to stock up on the essentials…home exercise equipment. For my part, I strutted out of the sporting goods store with a beautiful plastic yellow skateboard.  I had never successfully gotten on a skateboard before, but before lockdown I had been musing that a small board would cut 5 minutes from my walk to the subway station and match all my outfits. This could be my best idea yet, I thought, my second shot at lockdown to learn a new skill like all my friends did back in 2020!

Just a few weeks later, I had taken a bad fall from the board at the local bike path, and was at the hospital with my right arm in a makeshift sling waiting to see an orthopedic doctor. Such is the life of a skater boy.

Hospital visits can be stressful experiences in the best of circumstances, but hospital visits with a language/cultural barrier can turn into horror stories. Thank goodness my experiences at Taiwanese hospitals have so far been positive, so I don’t need to turn into that kind of travel blog. (But if you would like to read some horror stories from Chinese hospitals here are my favorites.) Still, I’d like to take a second to dissect which parts of the doctors office visit require bilingual language skills and how good way finding and signage can make a real difference in the lives of patients and hospital visitors.

I have been going to regular dermatology visits and (hopefully) a single visit to the orthopedic at Taiwan Adventist Hospital. As a hospital founded by the western Adventist church, it’s not surprising that their English resources are top-notch. In fact, the hospital includes a foreigner clinic (English, Japanese, Korean mainly) that takes international insurance. I was initially very disappointed that I could not go to the foreigner clinic because I have a Taiwanese national health insurance card as part of my Fulbright grant (obviously because I didn’t understand then just how cheap a doctors visit could be with national insurance. I’m a changed person after experiencing walking out of a hospital only $20USD lighter).

The first piece of accessible design was the hospitals website. Website translation may be a basic step for many institutions and companies in 2021, but a downfall of many sites is that although easy exposition pages might be translated, portals and recently posted announcements that people really need to see can be forgotten during updates. It is really imperative that the website is translated in its entirety to avoid some guests having secondary experiences, such as getting stuck at a point in the site so they must come in physically to finish their task, while the native speakers can do it all online. When booking an appointment at TAH, I was really happy to be able to see the full list of doctors and read a bit of information about their backgrounds. I ended up picking a young doctor who went to medical school in Canada, so I was sure his English would be outstanding. After booking my appointment through their portal, I was given clear instructions on how to prepare for my visit.

The second piece of accessible experience design is often overlooked by designers: the workers at the information desk. They are the functioning, reactionary translators of the system. When I walked up to the information desk to ask how to get in line for a number (which means nothing, I didn’t know what I was supposed to be doing), the elderly Taiwanese woman working there clocked my basic Chinese skills and possibly decided that she should stretch her legs, anyway. So she briskly handed me every piece of paper I would need, personally lead me to the second floor where each patient needs to self administer their blood pressure check and report height and weight. Then she took me to the correct doctor’s office, told me to sit down in the waiting room, and handed my NHI card to the nurse with I assume a message of  “dropping off a foreigner for you.” I owe a lot to that auntie, but then again she was just doing her job.

Of course, the last piece is the language proficiency level of the doctors and nurses. From my experience, either none of the nurses could speak English or they were too overly stressed from the double duty of assisting the doctor and keeping order in the waiting area. The Taiwanese system in hospitals of queuing visitors up in three hour time blocks instead of individual appointment times may facilitate the doctor being able to see many patients all in one day, but it is confusing and impersonal compared to the American primary-care system. Neither of my doctors bothered with small talk at all, preferring to just ask what was wrong and problem solve from there. Their English was very good, especially my dermatologist who studied in Canada, which is typical for Taiwanese doctors who need to score incredibly well on English tests in high school and college to enter medical school. The same goes for the pharmacists on the first floor who had my medication ready to be picked up by the time I walked downstairs.

The signage in the building also deserves an honorable mention. Even though there is a separate ward for foreign visitors, all of the signage and many of the machines had English translations. Although bilingual signage is not a cure-all for all linguistic accessibilty issues, it is essential for people trying to find ill loved ones at the hospital, or who are simply thinking about too many other problems to spend brainpower on examining a poorly-designed map. In the most extreme examples, good wayfinding design in hospitals can literally save a life.

Even outside of the hospital building, linguistic accessibility in medical care can have a dramatic impact on people’s quality of life. I am very lucky to have Taiwanese residency and health care during my stay here. I’m even luckier that I can have peace of mind knowing that if I was to get injured again, I don’t have to worry about language barriers on top of getting well again. I am free to continue skateboarding, traveling, and trying new things throughout my entire trip. But since safety comes first, I did buy a pair of elbow pads for my future skateboarding adventures.


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