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September 7, 2003

Services for deaf often ignored

From: Orlando Sentinel, FL - Sept 7, 2003

By Stephanie Erickson | Sentinel Staff Writer

Meg Sumner said her doctor's office knew she needed an interpreter.

But when Sumner, who is deaf, arrived for an appointment, no one was there to put the doctor's words into sign language for the 81-year-old Orlando woman.

The doctor blamed an agency for not sending an interpreter as requested. People at the agency blamed the doctor, saying they never got the call.

Across Central Florida, attorneys, dentists and other businesses aren't providing qualified interpreters for the deaf and hard of hearing, according to those who need the services.

Officials at the Deaf Services Bureau of Central Florida said that although they do not track numbers of complaints, it's the biggest gripe these days from the deaf and hard-of-hearing community.

The nonprofit organization, which has offices in Tampa and Hudson, expanded to Orlando in August. One of director Joshua Hughes' missions is to make sure businesses that offer consumer services know they are obligated through the Americans with Disabilities Act to pay for services for the deaf and hard of hearing.

Their typical response: "We don't do that," said Hilda Colondres, a sign-language interpreter for Access Through Sign Language, one of the few interpreting agencies in the area.

The law requires businesses to provide qualified interpreters as needed. Title III of the ADA covers a range of places, including retail stores, hotels, theaters, restaurants, banks and child-care centers.

Businesses are not required to have an interpreter on staff, but rather to make one available by appointment.

A deaf person, for example, would contact a doctor's office and request an interpreter for a future time.

The doctor must contact an interpreting service and pay for the interpreter's visit -- even if the cost is more than the cost of the services provided to the patient.

Hughes said he has already begun faxing the ADA rules to businesses.

Often, businesses think they are complying because they have a staff person who knows sign language, Hughes said. Typically, however, that person is not what the ADA terms a "qualified interpreter."

Interpreting involves more than signing -- an interpreter must accurately convey messages between the different languages, a skill that takes time to develop, he said.

To become certified, interpreters must pass an exam offered by the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf.

"If you can't pass that test, you shouldn't interpret," Hughes said.

Both Debbie Bennett, 44, and Tim Wata, 41 -- both deaf -- worry when pulled over by police. They have heard stories about police arresting deaf people, thinking they are intoxicated, and not providing an interpreter in jail.

Orlando Police spokesman Sgt. Orlando Rolon said that when needed, officers try to locate over police radio another officer on duty who knows sign language. Sometimes, another law-enforcement agency must be contacted, he said.

"More often than not, though, someone is already present who can help," Rolon said, including a family member who knows sign language.

Hughes said relatives often are too emotionally involved with the person and it is difficult for them to be neutral. Using family members as interpreters in some situations can cause confidentiality problems, especially when it comes to health care, he said.

"Parents don't feel comfortable using their children," Wata said. "It's just not right -- it can be too much for a child to hear."

Stacy Heckman, spokeswoman for Florida Hospital, said staff members call American Sign Language services when they need help with interpretations. The hospital also is negotiating a contract with the agency to hire someone to work at the hospital, she said.

The price tag -- interpreting can cost as much as $75 an hour in Central Florida -- is often the excuse for not providing qualified interpreters, said Colondres, who has interpreted at funerals, workshops, hospitals and police stations.

Her services cost $40 to $65 an hour, with a two-hour minimum.

In Orlando, the debate continues over who should provide courtroom assistance for an assistant public defender who is deaf.

Rarely, though, can businesses claim "undue burden or expense" as outlined in the ADA, for a two-hour cost of an interpreter, Hughes said.

Steve Birtman, director of the Florida chapter of the National Federation of Independent Businesses, an advocacy group for small businesses, said he would hope that any business taking the necessary steps would benefit with repeat visits.

"If someone [a deaf person] went somewhere to have a car fixed or somewhere bigger to negotiate a contract and that business provided an interpreter, more than likely the business owner would receive future benefits from that customer because that customer would want to return."

© 2003 Orlando Sentinel Communications