Saturday, March 5, 2011

Deaf woman sues Iowa hospital for allegedly forcing her to use her 7-year-old daughter as a sign-language interpreter

From the Des Moines Register:

A deaf Fort Dodge woman is suing a hospital for allegedly forcing her to use her 7-year-old daughter as a sign-language interpreter before the girl had surgery.

Jessie Fox says in a federal lawsuit filed March 4 that she asked officials at Trinity Regional Medical Center to provide an interpreter so she could understand instructions from the medical staff. She says the Fort Dodge hospital refused her request, so she had to rely on her daughter, Addison, to translate the staff's words into sign language.

With the help of a sign language interpreter, foreground, attorney Thomas Newkirk of Des Moines, right, is representing Jessie Fox, left, who had to rely on her daughter to translate a hospital's instructions into sign language before the girl had surgery.The arrangement led to a medication mix-up, the lawsuit says.

A nurse wanted Addison to continue taking an antibiotic for two weeks before having her tonsils and adenoids removed, but Fox misunderstood the instructions and stopped giving the drug. Addison didn't suffer any serious problems from the 2009 incident, but the suit says the interpreting arrangement put the girl and her mother an unfair and unsafe situation.

"Addison as a 7-year-old did not understand the medical terminology to interpret the information to her mother, Ms. Fox," the lawsuit says. "Ms. Fox was placed in the child-like role, whereas Addison was placed in the adult-like role. Ms. Fox was exasperated, frustrated, and helpless as a parent during her daughter's pre-operative appointment."

Addison Fox didn’t suffer any serious problems from the incident, but the lawsuit says the arrangement put her in an unsafe situation.In an interview Friday, Fox, 30, said she often has run into such problems as a profoundly deaf person. She filed the lawsuit because she wants medical professionals to understand the need for sign-language interpreters. "This is a discrimination issue," she said through an interpreter.

A spokeswoman for Trinity's parent company, Iowa Health System, said the hospital has worked to address Fox's concerns.

"In this case, we acknowledge that Trinity needed to improve its ability to communicate with hearing-impaired individuals, and Trinity has undertaken a comprehensive effort to educate staff and provide appropriate services to all hearing-impaired patients," Cheri Bustos wrote in an e-mail.

Bustos said the hospital has held staff training on the needs of deaf people; asked the Deaf Services Commission of Iowa for help; added signs to make patients aware of interpreter services; and contracted with a company for Web-based interpreting services and video relay services for deaf patients.

Bustos said federal civil rights officials reviewed the incident and closed the case after the hospital took those steps.

Fox and her lawyers said the hospital's actions did not go far enough.

Fox said she needed a live interpreter to fully understand what was going on during her daughter's appointment. She said video interpretive services can be unreliable and hard to follow.

One of her lawyers, Melissa Lewis of Guthrie Center, added that many hearing people falsely believe written notes can substitute for an interpreter. She said American Sign Language is a separate language from English. That means written English is essentially a second language for many deaf people, so notes may be insufficient to convey complicated information to them, said Lewis, who is deaf.

Lawyer Thomas Newkirk of Des Moines, who also represents Fox, said hearing people often under-estimate the needs of deaf people. "We expect them to get along and accommodate us," he said.

Bustos, the hospital spokeswoman, said Trinity "makes every effort to provide a live on-site interpreter service when they are available." When none is available, she said, the hospital now uses a Web-based system, in which an interpreter interacts with patients and medical staff via a laptop computer.

Len Sandler, a University of Iowa law professor, said the Americans with Disabilities Act would generally require hospitals to provide communications assistance to a deaf parent bringing a child to an appointment. Sandler, who often works on disability cases, said it's more common to see such a complaint when the patient herself is deaf. But he said the law clearly would apply if the parent of a minor patient is the one who is deaf, because the parent has the legal power of consent to medical procedures and must understand details of the treatment.