By Eden Anderson

As we have previously noted, Title III of the ADA requires that public accommodations 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” must be considered before assessing 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.   

A federal district court in Florida recently applied this legal obligation in the context of a hospital providing medical services to deaf patients and concluded that the use of video relay interpretation, passed written notes, and gestures sufficed to meet the hospital’s obligation and rejected the plaintiffs’ claim that a live interpreter was necessary to afford effective communication.   

In Martin v. Halifax Healthcare Systems, Inc., three individuals who are “completely deaf” and whose primary mode of communication is American Sign Language filed a lawsuit claiming that the hospital violated the ADA by failing to provide live interpreters for communication.  Two of the plaintiffs had been patients at the hospital, one of whom was treated while “in the throes of a serious heart attack.”  The third plaintiff had accompanied her pregnant daughter to the hospital. 

Although two of the patients occasionally received live interpreter services, in most instances  the hospital instead communicated with the plaintiffs through video relay interpretation, passed notes, and gestures.  The court held that such efforts were sufficient to afford effective communication.  The court noted that there was no evidence that the use of other communication methods adversely affected the plaintiffs’ understanding of the medical issues or that the plaintiffs “would have reached a different decision about treatment options or reached a more beneficial result” had live interpreters been provided. 

While the decision is a positive development for health care providers and other places of public accommodation, hospitals and health care providers should not view it as license to not provide sign language interpreters for deaf patients.  On the one hand, the ruling comports with the ADA regulations stating that a public accommodation is not required to provide an individual’s requested auxiliary aid or service so long as the one that is provided results in effective communication that is timely and protects the privacy and independence of the individual with a disability.  On the other hand, the rule seems inconsistent with the Department of Justice’s view that hospitals and health care providers must provide interpreters for important health care related communications.  The DOJ’s position is memorialized in a number of its settlements with hospitals and health care providers and a hospital that does not subscribe to this position would be at greater risk of a DOJ inquiry.    

Edited by Minh N. Vu and Kristina M. Launey