By GENE JOHNSON, Associated Press
SEATTLE (AP) — Providence St. Joseph Health, the largest healthcare system in Washington state, failed to provide in-person American Sign Language interpreters for deaf patients, leaving them at the mercy of virtual interpreters whose work was often beset by technological difficulties, according to a new lawsuit.
The California-based nonprofit law firm Disability Rights Advocates filed the class-action complaint in U.S. District Court in Seattle on Tuesday, saying its clients requested in-person ASL interpreters well before their appointments, but that Providence’s Seattle-area facilities frequently failed to provide them.
Instead, patients often had to deal with “video remote interpreters” on screens that often froze or cut out, making it difficult for patients to receive and understand critical health care information. Staff sometimes moved the machines around the room in an effort to find a better signal — a distraction from the serious medical conversations patients were attempting to have with their providers.
Patients sometimes resorted to communicating with health care providers by pen and paper, which was demeaning and left them without all their questions answered, the lawsuit said.
“We deserve to be able to go to appointments, have procedures, and visit the emergency room without worrying whether we will be able to communicate clearly or understand important medical information,” plaintiff Kate Spencer, of Snohomish County, said in a news release announcing the case. “We should never be forced to choose between our communication needs and our healthcare.”
In an emailed statement, Providence said it was investigating the allegations.
“The Providence family of organizations comply with all applicable state and federal accessibility laws and does not discriminate against anyone of the basis of disability, race, color, religion, national origin, sex, age, sexual orientation or gender expression or identity,” the statement said. “In addition, Providence believes every patient encounter is sacred and all patients have the right to considerate and respectful care.”
Disability Rights Advocates attorney Meredith Weaver said video interpretation services can be useful, especially in rural locations where interpreters are not available, but they require “a high standard of technical capacity and staff capabilities” — neither of which Providence ensured, Weaver said.
The lawsuit alleges violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Affordable Care Act. It asks the court to ensure that Providence provide qualified interpreters when necessary, modify its policies to ensure deaf individuals are not discriminated against, make sure the necessary technical requirements are in place to support video interpreters when appropriate, and train staff and doctors on interacting with deaf patients.
It also seeks reasonable attorneys’ fees and costs.
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