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Interpreters for Deaf Patients and the ADA

A federal district court in Florida holds that a hospital providing medical services to deaf patients could use video relay interpretation, passed written notes, and gestures to meet the hospital’s obligation under the Americans With disabilities ACT [“ADA”] and rejected the plaintiffs’ claim that a live interpreter was necessary to afford effective communication.
Title III of the ADA requires that public accommodations like hospitals provide, at their expense, “auxiliary aids and services” to ensure “effective communication” with persons with hearing disabilities.  The “nature, length, complexity, and context of the communication” at issue and the individual’s “normal method of communication” can be considered in weighing whether a particular auxiliary aid or service must be provided to afford “effective communication.”
This can be a very difficult determination in the healthcare context, where communications can be complex and urgent, including in life or death situations.
In an April 11, 2014, ruling in Martin v. Halifax Healthcare Systems, Inc., the Court found that live interpreters were not required for three deaf plaintiffs whose primary mode of communication is American Sign Language.
Two of the plaintiffs had been patients at the hospital and one was treated while “in the throes of a serious heart attack.”  The third plaintiff had accompanied her pregnant daughter to the hospital and been offered a live interpreter on some occasions, but not in every instance.
The court found  ‘there is no evidence that the alternative methods of communication employed by Halifax Hospital were insufficient to allow any Plaintiff to understand their circumstances and treatment as well as they would have understood them if a live ASL interpreter had been utilized.”
While this is a strong case for health care providers, the Department of Justice still takes the position that hospitals and health care providers must provide interpreters “for important health care related communications.”
Employers and other service providers subject to Title III of the ADA may have complied under the right set of circumstances without providing live interpreters; even if a ‘best practice” approach to limiting litigation risk and compliance  must consider the DOJ’s  position for “important health care communications.”
Written by: Don Benson, Esq.