Activism: Hospital Listens to Deaf Blind Activist Group

 August 1, 2007

 Euclid, Ohio – Imagine you are in another country and fall ill. Imagine you are rushed to a hospital and the doctors are trying to communicate with you about your medical condition in a foreign language that you barely understand. You would want to have a good interpreter who could translate the information into your native language right? This is what Deaf & Deaf-Blind advocates are asking for from Lake Hospital System.

 The Deaf & Deaf-Blind Committee on Human Rights (DDBCHR) held a press conference yesterday at Euclid Public Library claiming medical staff at Lake Hospital System (LHS) have repeatedly denied qualified sign language interpreting services to Deaf & Deaf-Blind patients at their facilities. The group has documented over a dozen cases of these interpreter service denials, some patients receiving care from LHS several or even dozens of times without the means for adequate communication with their medical providers, many times in life and death situations.

 The Americans with Disabilities Act, passed into law 17 years ago, requires hospitals and other public accommodations to provide effective communication for Deaf and Deaf-Blind patients. Particularly in serious medical situations, the most effective way to ensure effective communication is by providing sign language interpreters. For most Deaf people in North America, American Sign Language (ASL) is their first language and English is their second language. Therefore writing notes back and forth in English is often not a good way for medical providers to communicate clearly and effectively with their Deaf patients.

 DDBCHR member, Louis Benvenuto of Willowick, who is Deaf, spoke at the press conference through a sign language interpreter. He explained how he was diagnosed earlier this year with cancer while at Lake West Hospital. “I stayed in the hospital for a full week but was never provided with an interpreter. My wife (also Deaf) and I never felt we really understood what was happening, or if my health and the cancer was really that serious or not.” One day Louis’ 12 year old hearing daughter was visiting and the doctor came in and asked her to interpret while he explained Louis’ options for cancer treatment. The daughter had not yet known her father had cancer. She was very upset and burst into tears finding out her father’s condition and then having to relay such serious medical information to him.

 Karen Powers of Painesville, also Deaf, went to Lake East Hospital complaining of chest pain. The doctors told her she would need surgery. Despite repeated requests, a professional interpreter was never provided for Karen. She explained, “the doctors were planning to transfer me the next day to Lake West Hospital to have my heart surgery but I told them no! Hold! I needed to have an interpreter first to understand what was going on.” Karen decided to have her surgery done at the Cleveland Clinic where she had no trouble getting a sign language interpreter.

 Another Deaf woman, wishing to remain anonymous, told DDBCHR she has been struggling to convince LHS to provide sign language interpreters for the last 35 years. “I have been to LHS myself over 100 times and every time I have requested a professional interpreter and every time I have been denied…. I feel very frustrated without an interpreter because I don’t know what treatment or medicine they are giving me….Many times the LHS staff have asked my daughter, who is hard-of-hearing, to interpret for me. This started when she was 5 years old and now she is 32. I really didn’t like this because I felt it was taking away from her childhood to have the responsibility of doing medical interpreting for her parents. In some of the serious cases, my daughter would start to cry as she interpreted for me. It is impossible for her to be a neutral interpreter for me because she is my daughter. When she was very little, 5 years old, she didn’t even understand what many of the medical words meant in English, so how could she effectively interpret them into ASL for us?”

 Susan Presock of Euclid, who is Deaf and has low-vision, had a stroke in 2005 and was treated at Lake West Hospital. The staff called in a nurse who knew finger spelling and a little sign language to interpret. Susan explained, “The nurse was still learning sign language and it was hard for me to fully understand her and what was going on.”

 One day in Setpember 2006 Daniel Griffith, who is late deafened, passed out. He was treated at Lake West where he stayed for six days. On the final day a professional sign language interpreter finally arrived. He recounts, “If I had been provided an interpreter from day one it would have made me feel better and more relaxed about what was happening to me.”

 A Hard of Hearing woman, also wishing to remain anonymous, wrote in a statement to DDBCHR, “In 1996 I had to go to the emergency room (at LHS) for some intestinal pain. The doctor gave me a medicine that I was allergic to, it was a medication that I never had before so it was the first time I found out about the allergy. The doctor and nurses wouldn’t tell me what they gave me. So to this day I still do not know what the name of the medication was so I can avoid having another allergic reaction to it. There was no interpreter during this visit, and it would have helped immensely. It is very hard as a patient in pain to try to read lips and communicate with people you do not know and understand every single word that is being said.”

 Advocates also shared the stories of four former Deaf patients who have since died, never having been provided with qualified interpreters while receiving care at LHS facilities. DDBCHR leaders contend that had qualified interpreters been provided, some of these patients might still be alive today.

 One Deaf man named Bob, had Pulmonary Adema (lung problems) and was receiving care at Lake West Hospital. He talked with the doctor without an interpreter present. The doctor was trying to tell the Bob that he would not live much longer. Because no interpreter was provided he didn’t understand what the doctor was saying and Bob thought he could get a lung replacement and still live. Later a Deaf advocate showed up. She talked to the doctor and then explained in ASL to Bob that he would soon die. When Bob finally understood this, he began to sob. This is typical of the type of miscommunications that can occur when qualified interpreters are not provided.

 Darrell Doudt, Chair of the DDBCHR Action Committee explained, “Having full communication through the use of qualified sign language interpreters helps us as Deaf people ensure that we receive timely and accurate medical attention. When a professional interpreter is present, doctors are able to give the correct diagnosis without the misunderstandings and mistakes that happen when effective communication is not provided for us.”

 Following the press conference, the group attended a meeting with LHS Administrators at their offices in Painesville. Five DDBCHR leaders met with four hospital administrators. Several others were invited in to give their testimony about their experiences being denied interpreting services. DDBCHR leaders then presented their demands for improved services and care for Deaf & Deaf-Blind patients. The four demands were:
 1) Provide qualified Sign Language interpreters when requested by deaf/deaf-blind patients.

 2) Provide annual training for hospital staff on working with deaf & deaf-blind patients.

 3) Establish a computer registration program for persons needing interpreting services.

 4) Post Deaf/Deaf-Blind patient’s rights to interpreters & post a sign indicating the patient is Deaf over the patient’s bed (at his/her request).

 Hospital administrators seemed genuinely interested in the group’s concerns and in improving care for Deaf and Deaf-Blind patients in the future. After listening to the testimony and the demands, they suggested the possibility of working in partnership with DDBCHR to implement the changes that needed to be made. Administrators said they would need some time to discuss the specifics of the DDBCHR requests but committed to meeting with group leaders again within two weeks to discuss next steps.

 Judy Groner, President & Co-Founder of DDBCHR was very pleased with LHS’s response during the meeting, “the stories we told them about patients being denied communication with their medical providers in such serious situations really seemed to wake them up to the problem.”

 Linda Gray, DDBCHR Education Committee Chairperson was encouraged by the meeting as well. “The administrators appeared to be quite open and receptive to our concerns and our demands. We hope they will follow through on the commitments they made to us today.”

 The DDBCHR, founded in 1998, is a grassroots organization working to educate and organize around issues of living wage jobs, housing, health care, education and communication for all deaf, hard of hearing and deaf-blind people. The group is made up of Deaf, Hard of Hearing, Deaf-Blind, and non-deaf supporters from Northeast Ohio.

 For more information about the organization you may call by TTY or Videophone: 440-801-1948 or by voice to: 440-801-1998 or email:

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