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May 5, 2003

Hospital's new sign language plan not enough , critics say

From: Huntington Herald Dispatch, WV - May 5, 2003

By JENNIFER BUNDY - The Associated Press

HUNTINGTON -- A deaf mental health patient at Mildred Mitchell-Bateman Hospital thought he was having a heart attack last fall but could not get the staff to understand him because no sign language interpreter was on duty.

The man was too agitated to write a note. Instead of calling in an interpreter, staff got a deaf patient from another unit to interpret.

Although it turned out the man was not having a heart attack, critics of the hospital -- where interpreters were once available almost 24 hours a day -- say the incident is an example of poor administration and the potentially tragic results of cost-cutting measures.

West Virginia Advocates Inc. filed a grievance in January over the lack of interpreter services at Bateman, saying the two or three hearing impaired patients served annually are often unable to fully participate in activities and counseling, according to a Feb. 14 memo from David Sudbeck, the state ombudsman for behavioral health.

The group has handled two or three cases on behalf of deaf patients at Bateman in the last 12 months. Advocates Executive Director Bob Peck declined to discuss the cases, citing confidentiality concerns.

The state's response to January's grievance was to abandon using two part-time interpreters, who each worked 19.5 hours per week. In April, the state hired three full-time staff members who are qualified interpreters and who can double as health services workers -- like nurses' aides -- when there are no deaf patients.

The plan has been endorsed by the state Americans with Disabilities Act coordinator and the Commission on the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, whose interpreting coordinator helped interview the new employees and made recommendations based on their signing ability.

But two women who once worked as interpreters at Bateman say the changes will reduce the quality of care for deaf patients because it doesn't provide them with the access they need.

The new workers will be available from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. and on call at other times.

When there is no interpreter, "The client is totally isolated," said freelance interpreter Terri Johnson, who worked at the hospital on contract and then part-time for four years until January.

"They are isolated from the conversations of staff, from other client conversations," she said.

Without an interpreter, deaf patients can become depressed because their feelings of loneliness, isolation, frustration and hopelessness increase, she said.

"It is not therapeutic for their recovery," Johnson said.

The new employees will be paid more than other health service workers but less than the $35 an hour Johnson and other contract interpreters were paid under a system that preceded the 19.5-hour-per-week schedule.

Contract interpreters worked at the hospital full-time to ensure someone was available when needed. The 19.5-hour-a-week system replaced contract interpreters in July 2000.

Larry Ventura, the hospital's chief executive officer, said patients need interpreters only during active treatment hours.

"You don't want to make them dependent," he said. "When they go back in the community, they don't have the luxury of having an interpreter with them around the clock."

Many deaf patients can communicate without interpreters, by writing notes, for example, Ventura said.

However, Johnson and others say Ventura does not understand the needs of deaf patients.

"Many deaf people cannot read English as we know it," said Connie Kendall, a freelance interpreter who worked as needed at the hospital between April 1998 and January.

"American Sign Language is a totally separate language. It is not written. It is not spoken in the same way English is spoken," Kendall said. "They really dance around the ADA, trying to avoid paying interpreters the fees interpreters get. We're professionals." Yet Penney Hall, the state ADA coordinator, said the new system is "a good fiscal response to a problem."

Copyright © 2003 The Herald-Dispatch