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March 17, 2006

Protesters: Deaf need interpreters with doctor

From: Cleveland Plain Dealer - Cleveland,OH,USA - Mar 17, 2006

Harlan Spector
Plain Dealer Reporter

Westlake -- Two dozen activists who say doctors are unlawfully refusing interpreters for deaf patients staged a protest in a medical office building Thursday, trying at one point to push past police to confront a physician who refused to meet with the group.

The Deaf and Deaf-Blind Committee on Human Rights, an advocacy group based in North Olmsted, targeted Dr. Kornelia Solymos, a family doctor who they say repeatedly declined to sign an agreement to provide interpreters.

Deaf patients and their advocates say that without interpreters, it is difficult to understand instructions from doctors. They note in particular the risk for medication mistakes. "The doctor assumes we know what they're saying, and we don't," one activist said through an interpreter.

The group disrupted Solymos' practice on the campus of St. John West Shore Hospital for more than three hours, chanting, marching and sitting in the middle of the open waiting room. Patients and pharmaceutical representatives occasionally passed by with curious glances.

Solymos did not come out from the back offices, and she declined an interview request. Heather West of the human rights committee said the group asked more than 100 randomly chosen area doctors to sign agreements to provide interpreters. Only eight responded.

Kirby Smith, the president and chief executive of the hospital, appeared 40 minutes into the protest and acknowledged that the medical establishment has to better meet the needs of deaf people.

But Smith said he had no say in Solymos' practice, which leases space in the hospital-owned office building. He said he would talk to the medical practice.

Protest leaders talked with anticipation of being arrested. But police officers - at least a half-dozen at one point - stood by, guarding the waiting room doors. After a brief push to get past police, the protesters disbanded and promised to return in two weeks.

"We're begging the doctors to please understand us. . . ," Sarah Messina, an 83-year-old deaf woman, signed through an interpreter. "We need to fight for our rights."

Protestors said doctors who refuse to provide interpreters are breaking federal law under the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act.

But the equal-rights requirement is not clear-cut for small enterprises, which may not have to provide services that impose an undue burden, said Andrew Imparato of the American Association of People with Disabilities.

The Academy of Medicine of Cleveland, the local physician association, did not respond to a request for comment.

To reach this Plain Dealer reporter:, 216-999-4543

© 2006 The Plain Dealer.