Education Report:  Sign Language Interpreters in Medical Settings

Imagine getting sick in, say, rural China. You’ve studied a bit of Chinese and decided to travel there. Then your stomach starts to hurt. A lot. No one at the hospital — from doctors to receptionists — speaks English, so when you try to communicate your symptoms in English, no one understands. They talk to you in Chinese and you understand the basics:  lie down here; where does it hurt? But you need to tell them your medical history; they need to tell you their diagnosis and proposed treatment. Now imagine you’ve come to the hospital in extreme pain, or severely injured in a car accident, or in labor.

This is the experience Deaf people encounter every day in their own country in hospitals and doctors’ offices:  they need to explain their symptoms and history and to understand their diagnosis and treatment options in their native language — American Sign Language (ASL) — while medical personnel attempt to communicate with them using written notes or lip reading.  Since ASL is a completely different language from English — and the latter generally a second language for most Deaf people — this puts the Deaf patient in the same situation as the traveler above.  And written notes? Even if you’re fluent in English, imagine conducting your next doctor’s appointment — or emergency room visit or childbirth — by writing notes back and forth with doctors, nurses, and technicians; now imagine (if you’re native English speaker) writing back and forth in French or Russian. Imagine being a doctor and trying to obtain informed consent under these circumstances. Medical personnel should be insisting on — not resisting — qualified sign language interpreters. Image: caduceus symbol, signing hands symbol, question mark symbol graphic

The Americans with Disabilities Act requires doctors and hospitals to provide Deaf people with “effective communication.” In many cases, this means a sign language interpreter. Because this need often arises urgently — when no one can wait for the results of a lawsuit — and because many doctors are unaware of their obligations, CREEC has developed a Quick Guide to Sign Language Interpreters in Medical Settings. This Quick Guide, developed in 2017 — after years of providing the same information in emails, phone calls, and presentations — provides medical personnel and Deaf patients with the essential ADA requirements as well as resources for finding interpreters both in Colorado and around the country. CREEC also works with Deaf people directly who need medical interpreters by helping them reach out to doctors and hospitals, explaining the law, and connecting them with resources. Through this project, we have assisted over 25 clients to get the communications they need without having to resort to litigation.  In addition, CREEC has represented a number of individuals in court when medical facilities have refused to provide effective communication.

CREEC will continue to educate medical personnel about their obligations under the ADA and to provide support for Deaf people seeking to communicate effectively with their doctors. If you are interested in learning more about this issue, check out the resources in the Quick Guide and feel free to send it along to friends and colleagues in the medical world. Deaf people who have questions or would like assistance working with medical or other providers to get effective communication can contact us at intakes@creeclaw.org.

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