Hospitals Refuse Sign Language Interpreting Services: What to Do?

~ Authored by Shelly Tisius

Whether you or your family member is Deaf, going to the hospital with a serious medical condition can be frightening.  You want to know what’s going on ASAP.  You request a certified licensed sign language interpreter, as is the Deaf individual’s right.  When you make your request the hospital staff or medical professional refuses to provide an interpreter.  Why do some hospitals refuse sign language interpreting services, and what are the steps for ensuring you receive appropriate communication access?

Why Some Hospital Staff or Medical Professionals Refuse Equal Access to Communication

Though we do not condone the behavior, healthcare workers are not always educated about what to do when a Deaf patient or family member needs interpreting services.  Even if they are educated, they likely only experienced this situation one or two times in their career.  My mother-in-law was a nurse for 30 years and not once had a culturally Deaf patient who required sign language interpreting services.  All they know is that they have a short amount of time to do their job, and figuring out how to get an interpreter is not on their list.

Request for a Sign Language Interpreter is Denied: What to Do?

First, try not to get upset.  Instead, use your energy and time to locate someone who can help you.  Typically a Patient Advocate or Patient Liaison is your best course of action.  They are hospital staff, but their role is to mediate between the hospital and the patients to resolve issues and concerns.  When my mother had a stroke the rehabilitation staff tried to release her from therapy.  The advocate listened to our concerns, and worked between us and the staff and my mother’s stay was extended per our request.  This is not always to say you will get what you request, but equal access to communication is reasonable.

Understand that some hospitals refuse sign language interpreting services because they are not savvy with Deaf patients or sign language interpreters.  Be friendly and be direct with what you needHospitals Refuse Sign Language Interpreting Services

Your request is important for two primary reasons:

  1. You or your family member’s health is most important so language access is a necessity.
  2. You should not have to contact the Advocate each time you need a sign language interpreter. So ask that they educate their staff.

Finally, be appreciative and thank them for helping out.  We tend to be more willing to help those we enjoy being around.  So even though being in the hospital is not a pleasant experience, be as kind as you can.

Waiting for Sign Language Interpreting Services

In the St. Louis Metro area, all hospitals have access to sign language interpreting services.  Some have staff interpreters, but all have sign language interpreters available on a contract basis.  For emergency or appointment based needs, an interpreter can be available either immediately or shortly after they are called.  A reasonable arrival time for an interpreter could be up to 2 hours.  With a reputable sign language interpreting firm providing hospital on-call services, however, interpreters should arrive within two hours or less.  This may depend on the hospital location (especially in rural areas).

Hospitals Refuse Sign Language Interpreting Services

Reaching a Patient Advocate or Patient Liaison

If hospitals refuse sign language interpreting services, here are examples from some local hospital websites on how to contact the patient liaison.

Disclaimer: Hospital listing current as of January 2018

Barnes Jewish Hospital: Patient Liaisons

Mercy Hospital: Mercy Hospital

Missouri Baptist Medical Center: Resolution of Client Concerns (scroll to the bottom)

St. Mary’s: Patient Advocate Hotline

The Joint Commission: Submit a Complaint

In the extreme or rare case that services are completely refused or you feel severely mistreated, reach out to an expert professional for assistance, such as an attorney.  As with interpreting services, seek a local expert who specializes in discrimination complaints and the ADA such as James M. Paul.


Additional Resources:

What is a Patient Advocate?

It’s Illegal for Hospitals to Not Provide Translation Services


Photo Credit:

MT & Associates | Sign Language Interpreting Practice BBB Business Review