Lifespan sued for lack of interpreters

Lawsuit alleges two Deaf individuals were unable to communicate clearly with medical staff

Senior Staff Writer
Thursday, September 28, 2017

Lifespan allegedly failed to provide on-site sign language interpreters at the Rhode Island Hospital and Hasbro Children’s Hospital. The two plaintiffs were unable to communicate clearly about the treatment of their children, including blood transfusions, surgery and psychiatric treatment.

Two individuals filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against Lifespan Corporation, a healthcare conglomerate in Rhode Island and the University’s primary clinical training partner, that alleges a lack of interpreters within Lifespan’s subsidiary hospitals. Without interpreters, deaf individuals were left unable to communicate with medical professionals about the urgent healthcare needs of their children, according to the lawsuit. The National Association of the Deaf, Rhode Island Disability Law Center and Eisenberg & Baum, LLP filed the suit on behalf of the two plaintiffs and the Rhode Island Association of the Deaf  Sept. 6.

According to the lawsuit, Lifespan violated the Americans with Disabilities Act by not providing on-site sign language interpreter services at the Rhode Island Hospital and Hasbro Children’s Hospital, the pediatric division of Rhode Island Hospital. The plaintiffs both use American Sign Language as their primary means of communication and assert that Lifespan discriminated against them by not providing interpreters. The discrimination left the plaintiffs unable to clearly communicate with doctors and healthcare professionals about the treatment of their children, which included blood transfusions, surgery and psychiatric treatment.

In the suit, one plaintiff claims she has been unable to receive clear communication about her son’s life threatening medical conditions since 2014. The second plaintiff makes similar claims, alleging that she could not communicate clearly with hospital staff about her son or husband’s medical needs. In both cases, instead of providing on-site interpreter services to facilitate communication, Hasbro used Video Remote Interpreting, a remote service cart that video calls interpreters, but this service was largely ineffective, according to court documents.

The plaintiffs ask the court to require Lifespan to provide and pay for qualified healthcare interpreters and have Lifespan staff trained on the rights of deaf patients.

“We filed this lawsuit to bring attention to the very important need to ensure that deaf and hard of hearing individuals have the same access to healthcare” that all individuals are entitled to, said Caroline Jackson, a staff attorney for the National Association of the Deaf Law and Advocacy Center. “The laws we are enforcing have been on the books since 1973 and 1990, respectively,” and The National Association of the Deaf has seen many similar cases of lack of provisions for necessary medical communication, she added.

“Since the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed in 1990, hospitals in Rhode Island have neglected deaf patients by providing inadequate access to accommodations which infringe on Deaf individuals’ basic human rights,” said Todd Murano, acting president of the Rhode Island Association of the Deaf, in a press release.   

Lifespan failed to take the necessary steps to provide effective communication and have violated federal requirements, Jackson said. “When someone is deaf or hard of hearing, and they primarily use sign language to communicate,  … then it means providing a qualified sign language interpreter so they can … have a real chat with doctors and nurses,” Jackson said.

“A lot of hospitals try to do video interpreting services where they bring in a cart that has a camera on it and they call a remote interpreter, who listens and tries to interpret what’s in the room,” said Tim Riker, lecturer of language studies. But the video interpreting services “aren’t reliable, people who use it aren’t trained, the Internet can be choppy and the patient might not be able to see the screen if they are incapacitated due to their condition. They need a live person in the room to interpret,” he said. “A doctor refusing an interpreter is forcing a patient to accept a lack of communication.”

Accurate communication is also necessary for successful care, wrote Hayley Jamroz Baccaire, president of the Rhode Island Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf, in an email to The Herald.

“Personalized care is essential and can be rendered with the greatest outcome by working with licensed interpreters who are on-site,” she wrote.

There is a lack of interpreters overall in the state, according to multiple sources. This is correlated to the lack of training programs for interpreters and low levels of retention, Riker said.

“One way to solve the problem is to create full-time staff positions,” Riker said. Large hospitals can hire several full-time interpreters to travel between hospitals in the state, Riker said, adding that this “might help a little of the retention rate of interpreters if it’s a full-time position with benefits.”

The Rhode Island Disability Law Center has received many complaints about lack of interpreter services in Rhode Island, particularly after the press following this suit, said Kate Bowden, staff attorney for the Rhode Island Disability Law Center. “We think this is an important case because all parents should have the ability to speak and communicate with doctors about the care of their children and loved ones. This level of communication is required by law,” Bowden said.

Rhode Island Hospital and Hasbro Children’s Hospital “are committed to providing family-centered care for all patients,” David Levesque, director of communications for Lifespan wrote in an email to The Herald. Lifespan declined to comment on the lawsuit.

The suit is still in its initial stages, and the plaintiffs will not hear an answer or a motion to dismiss from Lifespan until the middle of October, Jackson said.

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