ASL Interpreters at the Doctor’s Office

By Jean F. Andrews

Mrs. T., a single mother who is deaf, made a medical appointment when her hearing son complained of headaches and earaches. As a native Signer, Mrs. T. requested a qualified ASL interpreter for the doctor’s office visit. She was informed that a staff audiologist interpret. But the Audiologist was busy with other things, and during the meeting, he would come and go, frequently. This frustrated Mrs. T. because she could not get the whole discussion about her son’s condition.

Poster by the United States Department of Labo...
Poster by the United States Department of Labor celebrating the 20th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 featuring Helen Keller and Justin Dart, Jr. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

To make matters worse, the audiologist having minimal skills, could not interpret complex medical/audiological information, nor could he understand Mrs. T.’s questions. She was a native signer, and held a master’s degree in Deaf Education. She taught science to deaf children. Subsequently, communication broke down between her, the audiologist and the doctor.

The behavior of the doctor further confused, and frustrated Mrs. T. as he did not share any charts on the hearing tests that were to be conducted on her son, nor did he provide adequate explanations on why further tests were needed. Mrs. T. became angry and asked for a qualified interpreter for future meetings, so her family could make decisions related to her son’s hearing health.

Because of the doctor’s lack of sensitivity to her communication needs, Mrs. T suffered acute fear, distress, and emotional and psychological pain. The doctor’s office later called Mrs. T. and terminated their care for her son stating they could not provide her with qualified interpreters as she requested.

English: President George H. W. Bush signs the...
President George H. W. Bush signs the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 into law. Pictured (left to right): Evan Kemp, Rev Harold Wilke, Pres. Bush, Sandra Parrino, Justin Dart (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

According to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the doctor is required to provide deaf individuals with a qualified sign language interpreter. Further, both the National Association of the Deaf (NAD) (https://nad.org/issues/health-care/position-statement-health-care-access-deaf-patients) and the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID) (http://asnwonline.com/interpreting-in-medical-settings/#more-18) have published position papers which provide guidelines on the use of interpreters in medical settings. This pertains to deaf parents who are seeking medical attention for their hearing children, as well.

The doctor’ response to Mrs. T. was unethical. Ostensibly he was trying to save money. In violating ADA, the doctor is vulnerable to costly litigation, which could have been avoided if he provided a qualified interpreter in the first place.

Jean F. Andrews is a Distinguished Professor Emerita of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education at Lamar University.

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