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June 21, 2004

Deaf woman sues doctor

From: Rochester Democrat and Chronicle - Rochester,NY,USA - Jun 21, 2004

She cites disabilities law over lack of interpreter during visit.

Greg Livadas
Staff writer

(June 21, 2004) — In what is believed to be the first local lawsuit claiming a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act involving a deaf plaintiff, a Penfield woman has filed suit against a physician, claiming he repeatedly refused to provide her with a sign language interpreter.

Born deaf, Gail Sager, 61, is unable to speak English and communicate effectively through written English, according to the complaint filed in Federal Court last week.

In January, Sager, using the New York State Relay Service, called the office of Dr. R. Edward Miner at Partners in Internal Medicine in Penfield to set up a new patient visit, the complaint said. She selected the office because it was close to her home.

After the appointment was made, Sager requested a sign language interpreter but was told repeatedly by the doctor's office that it was her responsibility to bring her own interpreter. The day of her appointment, Sager asked a receptionist whether there would be an interpreter. There wasn't, so Sager left.

A similar scenario played out in February, when Sager asked for an interpreter for an appointment to have a leg rash evaluated, according to her suit. Sager has never met Miner.

The suit contends that Miner and his medical group "have subjected Ms. Sager to prohibited and illegal discrimination on the basis of her disability."

Miner could not be reached for comment.

No specific monetary amounts are mentioned in the suit, just "compensatory and punitive damages for the emotional distress, pain and suffering she has endured to date as a result of defendants' intentional discriminatory conduct."

Sager's suit is being handled by the Public Interest Law Office of Rochester and is believed to be the first local ADA suit involving deafness, said Spencer Phillips, one of Sager's lawyers.

Michael Schwartz, an assistant Attorney General who brought litigation for a similar case in Dutchess County, said "effective communication access" is needed in complex financial, legal and medical situations.

A deaf patient needing to talk with a doctor about a medical procedure with an involved issue requiring deliberation, "pen and paper is awfully inadequate for the job," Schwartz said.

"Put yourself in the shoes of the deaf patient: You're a candidate for surgery and you have a million questions to ask the doctor. Would you put up with writing notes back and forth?"

Knowing the doctor is busy with other patients waiting would add to the tension of writing back and forth each question, he said. If a deaf person's primary language is American Sign Language, which doesn't follow the rules of written English, writing may also not be understood.

"Doctors don't understand deafness, deaf culture, and the difference between ASL and written English, and it is this ignorance that is at the root of the problem facing so many deaf patients," said Schwartz, an ADA expert and an assistant law professor at Syracuse University.

"The doctor cannot dictate pen and paper as an accommodation for all deaf patients," said Schwartz, who is deaf.

Nancy Adams, executive director of the Monroe County Medical Society, said area physicians often inquire about providing interpreters to their patients.

But the solution isn't always clear.

"I think this is one of those situations where the law is a bit gray in its definition," Adams said. "The law talks about reasonableness to provide or deny the accommodation. The health care professional has to make a decision whether or not an interpreter is needed."

Adams said interpreters add to the cost of business for physicians. "Everyone has to recognize the reality for the physician is often the interpreter is paid more than the cost of the office visit," she said.

"Physicians should be providing interpreters when needed, but the patient also needs to understand there are other ways to communicate that may be just as effective. We all need to work together."

The American Medical Association published guidelines on the use of interpreters, saying acceptable alternatives may include note-taking, written materials, or, if viable, lip reading. An interpreter is not required if it presents an undue burden such as a significant expense.

Adams said there have been cases locally where doctors have hired interpreters for deaf patients who failed to show up for appointments, and the doctors get stuck paying for the interpreter.

Sager's case will be heard by U.S. District Judge Charles J. Siragusa; no dates have been set.

Copyright 2004 Rochester Democrat and Chronicle.