A Link to the Hearing World

This piece, by Health Justice Director Nisha Agarwal, will appear in the upcoming issue of NYLPI’s Pro Bono Clearinghouse newsletter.  It discusses a case that the Health Justice team worked on in conjunction with NYLPI’s Disability Law Center and advocates from around the country.

Imagine going to a hospital for heart surgery and not being able to communicate with your doctor or any of the nursing staff.  Imagine that your 13- and 9-year old children are made to serve as your voice instead: to ask questions for you, to explain the procedures to you, to tell you that post-surgery you had a stroke.  Imagine that your children are given pagers and pulled out of school whenever hospital staff need to speak with you, and that the younger child later attempts suicide because he thinks the problems you suffered in the hospital were his fault.  After all, his 9-year old vocabulary couldn’t find the right words to describe what was happening — to you, to himself or to others.

These are, roughly, the facts of Loeffler v. Staten Island University Hospital, a case decided by the Second Circuit Court of Appeals on October 6, 2009.  Robert Loeffler was a man who was profoundly deaf and sued Staten Island University Hospital for failure to provide him with a qualified sign language interpreter, as required under the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act.  NYLPI became involved with the case at the appeals level, organizing a broad national coalition of disability and language rights groups to provide amicus support to the plaintiffs.  Our brief highlighted two issues: (1) the proper legal standard to apply in “deliberate indifference” cases of this kind under disability law and (2) the importance of having competent, qualified medical interpreters in the health care setting, not just for people who are deaf but also for individuals with limited English proficiency and other communication barriers.  Our coalition of amici wanted the members of the court to understand not only the legal right they were being asked to clarify but also, more importantly, its significance.

And understand they did.  Oral arguments took place in March and were notable for the impassioned questioning of one judge on the panel, who described as “inhumane” the use of the Loeffler children as interpreters.  The court’s eventual decision found for the Loefflers on all points of law and remanded to the district court for trial.  In the concurrence, the court concluded, powerfully, by recognizing that the case is “not the dawn of never-ending liability for the Hospital, it is what Congress required – a link to the hearing world.”  For NYLPI, the case was an important opportunity to bridge the disability and language access communities and take part in an important victory for many of the communities we serve.

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