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AGREEMENT TO SETTLE SUIT SEEKING SIGN LANGUAGE INTERPRETERS AT CONNECTICUT HOSPITALS WASHINGTON, D.C. - A federal judge today approved an innovative agreement between the Justice Department, the Connecticut Office of Protection and Advocacy for Persons with Disabilities (P&A), and thirty-two hospitals across Connecticut, that requires the hospitals to provide sign language interpreters for patients who are deaf or hard of hearing. The agreement, announced last June and approved at a hearing today in U.S. District Court in Hartford, Connecticut, resolves a class action lawsuit that alleged hospitals in Connecticut were violating the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) by not providing sign language interpreters. "The Court today recognized the critical importance of guaranteeing effective communication to persons who are deaf or hard of hearing," said Bill Lann Lee, Acting Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights. "Without effective communication, adequate health care cannot be provided. These hospitals should be commended for their efforts to provide effective communication throughout the State of Connecticut." Under the proposal, the hospitals will: set up a state wide, on call system to provide qualified sign language and oral interpreters, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, through Family Services Woodfield, a non profit agency based in Bridgeport, Connecticut; provide telecommunication devices (TTD's) that enable persons who are deaf or hard of hearing to use public telephones throughout the hospitals and, when requested, in patient rooms; install visual alarms where audible alarms are already provided; train employees and volunteers about issues relating to communication with persons who are deaf or hard of hearing, with special training for Emergency Department personnel, psychiatric personnel, and social workers, and other key
personnel; post signs stating that the hospital will provide sign language interpreters and other auxiliary aids and services, free of charge, to persons who are deaf or hard of hearing; offer training to all affiliated physicians; designate an Information Office and Program Administrators to implement all aspects of the agreement and to provide information to the public; and, Fourteen of the participating hospitals also have agreed to pay $333,000 in compensation to persons who are deaf or hard of hearing and to non-disabled people who were affected by the hospitals' failure to provide effective communication in the past, and $20,000 in attorney fees to P&A. "This settlement truly represents a win-win situation for the people of Connecticut and the state's hospitals," said Stephen C. Robinson, U.S. Attorney in Connecticut. "Now, the hospitals will be able to fully communicate with people who are deaf and hard of hearing in order to continue to provide the highest quality care. People who are deaf and hard of hearing can rest assured that should they need treatment at a hospital they will always be able to effectively communicate with their treating physicians." The agreement resolves a class action suit originally brought by P&A against ten hospitals for failing to provide sign language interpreters for patients or patients' family members who are deaf or hard of hearing. The Department of Justice intervened in the suit, and twenty two other hospitals voluntarily intervened as defendants in order to participate in the shared system providing sign language interpreters and to avoid any future liability. The Department recently resolved another suit in which it had intervened against Maine Medical Center of Bangor, Maine. Under that agreement, adopted by a federal court in May, Maine Medical Center will provide sign language and oral interpreters and other aids necessary for effective communication with deaf or hard of hearing persons interacting with hospital personnel. "Doctors must be able to communicate effectively with their patients or they risk denying them the opportunity for adequate care. Often, communication makes the difference between helping and harming a patient -- in some cases, it could even make the difference between life and death," added Mr. Lee.
The ADA prohibits discrimination against persons with disabilities. Specifically, it prohibits health care providers, both private and public, from refusing or failing to provide appropriate auxiliary aids and services, including qualified sign language and oral interpreters, when necessary to ensure effective communication with persons with disabilities. The parties provided notice to the class, and the Court held a hearing today at which class members were allowed to speak in support or to object to the agreement. Only a few comments were provided by the affected class members, and Federal Magistrate Judge Thomas P. Smith ruled from the bench that the agreement should be approved. Those interested in finding out more about the law can access the Department's ADA Home Page on the World Wide Web at http://www.usdoj.gov/crt/ada/adahom1.htm or call the ADA Information Line at (800) 514 0301 (voice) or (800) 514 0383 (TDD). # # # 98-381