I recently came across a news article about a lawsuit by several d/Deaf or hard of hearing people who were denied interpreter services in emergency rooms. It sounds both infuriating and terrifying:
One deaf hospital patient in Jacksonville Beach said she was given a stuffed monkey instead of the sign-language interpreter she requested for hours. Feeling isolated, she finally asked nurses for something to hold.
Another said she thought she was being denied medical care because there was no interpreter to explain why they needed her to wait in a hallway at Baptist Medical Center South. She later learned hospital staff lost a list of sign-language interpreters her mother had given them.
A third woman couldn’t hear when emergency workers at Baptist Medical Center downtown called her name.
The three women are among seven hearing-impaired emergency-room patients suing Baptist Health Systems for violating the Americans With Disabilities Act by failing to provide qualified sign-language interpreters. The lawsuit was filed in federal court last week by Jacksonville Area Legal Aid. Legal Aid attorney Sharon Caserta, who works with hearing-impaired clients, said the pattern of complaints at Baptist facilities from 2006 to 2009 indicated a breakdown in services that denied deaf patients full access to care.
She said the act requires interpreters or effective auxiliary aids to be provided if needed for communication with medical professionals. The U.S. Justice Department has interpreted the law to mean a one- to two-hour response time is reasonable after an interpreter has been requested, Caserta said.
In Northeast Florida, she said, that shouldn’t be an issue because of a half-dozen organizations that provide interpretive services and the proximity of the Florida School for the Deaf and the Blind in St. Augustine. But Caserta said her clients never got interpreters and, if they didn’t have friends or family with them, had to fend for themselves at Baptist facilities.
Many are now scared to return to Baptist or any emergency room, she said.
These problems are not limited to that hospital, or even to the United States. According to one survey in the UK, “70% of deaf respondents reported being unable to have access to an interpreter when they attended an accident and emergency department.”
These incidents would be bad enough if their impact was limited to the incident itself. Being denied the right to communicate in an emergency situation is beyond unacceptable. It denies people the right to understand what’s happening to them. It denies them the ability to consent to treatment or make any decisions or have any agency at all in their treatment.
Even worse, these incidents undermine the reliability and usefulness of the health system itself. As the article above mentions, many of the plaintiffs “are now scared to return to … any emergency room.” This is echoed by the UK survey, which found that “communicating with health care professionals was such a struggle that 28% of deaf people responding to one survey were left so confused and dissatisfied with their inadequate GP health care that they avoided seeking medical help.” These people have learned that the health care system is unwilling to communicate with them in their time of urgent need. Is unwilling to take the time or make the effort to treat them as autonomous people participating in their own care.
In a demonstration of intersectionality, the facilities and areas in the US that have the best policies and practices about providing sign interpreters to d/Deaf and hard of hearing people are those with good policies for accommodating people with limited English speaking proficiency. (I would expect the same holds true for non-US locations which accommodate folks who don’t speak the primary language.) These places have created an infrastructure where interpreters are available and staff are trained on how to access them, and they’ve prioritized communication access in their facilities.