Sign Language Interpreters at Doctors, Dentists, and Hospitals

Good communication at the doctor (or dentist or hospital) is essential. Recognizing this, the authors of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) included specific language regarding communications access for deaf and hard of hearing people. Even so, there have been numerous cases of failure (or outright refusal) of medical establishments to provide sign language interpreters.

Therapist carrying out EFT treatment with elderly patient
Dean Mitchell / Getty Images

Title III of the ADA

Title III of the ADA covers access to places of public accommodation. Subchapter III - Public Accommodations And Services Operated By Private Entities, Section 12181, Definitions, says that the following examples of private entities are considered public accommodations:

(6) a laundromat, dry-cleaner, bank, barbershop, beauty shop, travel service, shoe repair service, funeral parlor, gas station, office of an accountant or lawyer, pharmacy, insurance office, professional office of a healthcare provider, hospital, or other service establishment;

Furthermore, the Department of Justice's interpretation of Title III states that:

Places of public accommodation include... doctors' offices, hospitals,...

The same interpretation says that public accommodations must "Furnish auxiliary aids when necessary to ensure effective communication unless an undue burden or fundamental alteration would result." (Fundamental alteration means that it would have a substantial impact on the business. For instance, a doctor would no longer be able to provide medical care).

When Is An Interpreter Necessary?

An "auxiliary aid" as defined by the ADA means "qualified interpreters or other effective methods of making aurally delivered information available to individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing." Alternative methods mean techniques such as writing back and forth on paper or using computerized means of communication. So when is an interpreter necessary? This question is best answered by the Department of Justice ADA Technical Assistance Manual.

The ADA Technical Assistance Manual, answers the question "Who decides what type of auxiliary aid should be provided?" by stating that the place of public accommodation, e.g. the doctor's office, gets to make the "ultimate decision" as to what methodology to use, as long as the method chosen results in effective communication. There can be disagreement over what constitutes effective communication. The Technical Assistance Manual states:

The physician must be given an opportunity to consult with the patient and make an independent assessment of what type of auxiliary aid, if any, is necessary to ensure effective communication. If the patient believes that the physician's decision will not lead to effective communication, then the patient may challenge that decision under Title III by initiating litigation or filing a complaint with the Department of Justice.

The Technical Assistance Manual has specific examples of when an interpreter is necessary versus when an interpreter is not necessary. The 1994 supplement to the Technical Assistance Manual cites two examples. In the first example, a deaf person goes to the doctor for a routine checkup; notes and gestures are considered acceptable. In the second example, the same deaf person has just had a stroke and needs a more thorough examination; an interpreter is considered necessary because the communication is more in depth.

Getting Doctors, Dentists, Hospitals to Comply

One barrier to obtaining interpreters is the "undue burden" provision. To combat this, the National Association of the Deaf (NAD) has a fact sheet online that tells deaf people to notify healthcare providers in advance of appointments that they need an interpreter. In addition, it states that the healthcare provider must pay for the interpreter even if the cost of the interpreter is higher than the cost of the visit. At the bottom of the fact sheet, there is a link to contact the NAD Law and Advocacy Center if further assistance is needed. A related, longer NAD fact sheet, Questions and Answers for Health Care Providers, has other important information such as the fact that the cost of an interpreter to the doctor can be covered by a tax credit.

Mediated Interpreter Cases

The Department of Justice has an ADA Mediation program, where the parties negotiate a mutually acceptable solution. These summarized examples of mediated cases involving interpreters at medical facilities were given on the ADA Mediation Program page:

  • A doctor who refused to pay for an interpreter agreed to hire interpreters.
  • Another doctor agreed to pay for interpreters and maintain a list of qualified interpreters to call.

ADA Cases Involving Interpreters

The Department of Justice publishes news updates on disability rights cases in their Disability Rights Section News page, that contains examples of cases involving doctors, dentists, and hospitals. Below are summarized examples found.

  • August 2015: A California hospital settles and agrees to provide interpreters and services for people who are deaf or hard of hearing.
  • December 2014: An Illinois healthcare system settles and agrees to provide auxiliary aids and services, including interpreters, to people who are deaf or hard of hearing.
  • March 2012: An Iowa hospital settles and agrees to provide auxiliary aids and services in a prompt manner to patients or companions who are deaf or hard of hearing.The lawsuit alleged that a woman who was deaf had to rely on her 7-year-old daughter to provide interpretation, resulting in confusion about medical procedures.
  • February 2012: A Michigan health system settles and agrees to provide auxiliary aids and service to patients and companions who are deaf or hard of hearing. The complaint alleged that the health system didn't provide interpreters for a deaf patient at an inpatient psychiatric facility as well as for the patient's family members who were also deaf.
4 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. American with Disabilities Act. Americans with Disabilities Act Title III Regulations.

  2. Equip for Equity. Overview: Discrimination by businesses.

  3. ADA Title III Technical Assistance Manual. Americans with Disabilities Act.

  4. Department of Justice ADA Mediation Program.

By Jamie Berke
 Jamie Berke is a deafness and hard of hearing expert.