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Effective Communication for Deaf or Hard of Hearing Patients

  • Published: 2009-09-15 (Revised/Updated 2016-06-13) : Author: HHS Press Office
  • Synopsis: Laws prohibit discrimination against persons with disabilities and requires hospitals to provide effective communication for persons who are deaf or hard of hearing.

Main Document

"Hospitals have a legal obligation to ensure that qualified interpreters are available when needed for effective communication with deaf or hard of hearing persons, rather than relying on family members."

Fort Washington Medical Center to Ensure Effective Communication for Deaf or Hard of Hearing Patients - HHS Office for Civil Rights and Fort Washington Medical Center Sign Settlement Agreement.

Under a settlement agreement reached with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, deaf patients at the Fort Washington Medical Center in Prince George's County, Md., will be screened and provided with sign language interpreters whenever interpreter services are necessary for effective communication.

The settlement was negotiated following an investigation by the Department's Office for Civil Rights (OCR) in response to a complaint from a deaf patient. The man entered the emergency room late one evening accompanied by his 11-year-old son. Although the man and his son requested an interpreter, none was provided, and the medical staff relied on the son to interpret for his father in the emergency room.

Federal laws prohibit discrimination against persons with disabilities, and require entities such as hospitals to provide effective communication for persons who are deaf or hard of hearing. OCR found that Fort Washington Medical Center violated the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 when it failed to provide the deaf patient with an interpreter during his emergency room visit.

OCR Director Georgina Verdugo states, "Hospitals have a legal obligation to ensure that qualified interpreters are available when needed for effective communication with deaf or hard of hearing persons, rather than relying on family members. This agreement helps the Fort Washington Medical Center fulfill this legal obligation by providing deaf or hard of hearing persons with appropriate language assistance to ensure effective communication."

"The Washington Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights & Urban Affairs applauds this settlement agreement, which will go far to ensure that hearing children of deaf parents are not required to act as interpreters for their parents in health care and other serious situations. This practice harms both the deaf parent and the child, and does not ensure effective communication for the deaf person in these critical moments," said E. Elaine Gardner, director, Disability Rights Project, Washington Lawyers' Committee, who filed the complaint on behalf of the deaf patient.

"We recognize the importance of accurate communication with patients, and we enthusiastically embrace the new procedures which are being implemented. Our goal is to ensure that all patients are able to communicate effectively with our health care providers," said Verna S. Meacham, Fort Washington Medical Center's president and chief executive officer.

A copy of the OCR letter of finding and the settlement agreement, along with more information about OCR's civil rights enforcement activities, can be found at www.hhs.gov/ocr/civilrights/activities/agreements/

OCR is partnering with the American Hospital Association and state hospital associations across the nation to raise awareness about requirements of the federal law. More information about the Effective Communication in Hospitals Initiative can be found at www.aha.org/aha/issues/Disparities/resources.html

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