Deaf Patients, Doctors, and the Law: Compelling a Conversation About Communication

Michael A. Schwartz

Syracuse University - College of Law

February 2, 2009

Florida State University Law Review, Vol. 35, No. 4, 2008

Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) grants people with disabilities access to public accommodations, including the offices of medical providers, equal to that enjoyed by persons without disabilities. The Department of Justice (DOJ) has unequivocally declared that the law requires effective communication between the medical provider and the Deaf patient. Because most medical providers are not fluent in sign language, the DOJ has recognized that effective communication calls for the use of appropriate auxiliary aids, including sign language interpreters. The final decision on what to offer the Deaf patient is the doctor's, and under current DOJ regulations, the doctor does not have to consult with the patient or give "primary consideration" to the patient's choice of auxiliary aid as long as what the doctor offers results in effective communication. However, given the great variation in people's communication styles and skills, a standard, one-size-fits-all auxiliary aid would fail to achieve effective communication in many cases, harming not only that Deaf patient, but also the medical provider, who would be potentially liable for violating the ADA as well as hamstrung in getting accurate information for purposes of diagnosis and treatment. Moreover, most doctors are not savvy about Deafness and Deaf culture. Thus, the best way to ensure effective communication would be to require the medical provider to ask the Deaf patient for his or her choice of auxiliary aid and to give "primary consideration" to the patient's expressed choice of auxiliary aid. Such an approach is required under Title II of the ADA, which makes it mandatory for state and local governments to consult with people with disabilities and give "primary consideration" to the patient's choice of auxiliary aid. Given that there is no difference between a public doctor and a private doctor that would justify the two different approaches and that cost is not a factor, since under either title, a medical provider cannot pass on the costs to the person with a disability, the DOJ should revise its interpretation of Title III in order to bring in into line with its interpretation of Title II. To fail to do so would operate to frustrate both the letter and the spirit of the ADA. Until the DOJ brings the titles into line, the courts should decline to give controlling weight to the DOJ's interpretation of Title III.

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Date posted: February 2, 2009  

Suggested Citation

Schwartz, Michael A., Deaf Patients, Doctors, and the Law: Compelling a Conversation About Communication (February 2, 2009). Florida State University Law Review, Vol. 35, No. 4, 2008. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1336575

Contact Information

Michael A. Schwartz (Contact Author)
Syracuse University - College of Law ( email )
Syracuse, NY 13244-1030
United States
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