An Ahwatukee couple is taking Dignity Health and its Chandler Regional Medical Center to federal court over what they consider to be a lack of interpretive services for deaf patients.
Mitchell and Dawn Siegel have been waiting more than five years to resolve a civil complaint they filed against the medical provider for practices they think are discriminatory against the deaf community.
Dawn Siegel visited Dignity’s Chandler Regional Medical Center in 2014 for severe stomach pains and claims she was not provided a sign language interpreter who could translate what doctors and nurses were telling her.
She was instructed to write down what she needed to tell hospital staff or communicate through an off-site interpreter via webcam video.
Siegel found the video service ineffective due to poor visual quality and the interpreter’s inabilities. She claims her requests for a certified, in-person interpreter were not granted during her nine-day hospital visit, resulting in Siegel never wanting to return.
“I should be able to go to whatever hospital I want to,” Dawn said through an interpreter. “It’s not fair.”
The Siegels were among a group of deaf individuals who joined together in 2014 to sue Dignity Health for violating protections under the Americans with Disabilities Act obligating health providers to “effectively communicate” with deaf people.
The other plaintiffs told similar stories of not having access to in-person interpreters at the Chandler hospital or being forced to use the video services.
One plaintiff alleged Dignity’s video service were not working when doctors needed to tell him he needed emergency surgery. Staff had to deliver the news through the patient’s relative over the phone, court documents show.
All the plaintiffs chose to settle their claims with Dignity last year, except for the Siegels.
The hospital offered to pay $25,000 to resolve the case, Mitchell Siegel said, but he and his wife declined.
“It was insulting,” Mitchell said through an interpreter about the offer.
The rights of deaf people are the same as anyone else, Mitchell added, so they decided it was time for a jury to hear their story.
Elizabeth Tate, a Phoenix-based attorney who will be representing the Siegels at trial – scheduled to begin Feb. 4 – will try to convince a jury Dignity acted indifferently to Siegel’s needs by providing webcam translators the plaintiffs considered to be “woefully inadequate.”
“I think it’s a really inhumane way to address the medical needs of the deaf community,” Tate said.
In response to questions by the Arizonan, a hospital spokesperson said the facility always has interpreters available “to help make important medical conversations with its patients and their companions as clear as possible.”
“Chandler Regional employs qualified interpreters and also provides telephonic and video interpreter services in more than 80 languages available at any time,” the spokesperson added.
The Siegels are not the first deaf people to sue a hospital for not providing onsite interpreters.
There have been several lawsuits filed across the country by deaf patients claiming their health was jeopardized by faulty webcam interpreters.
A reoccurring complaint among plaintiffs the quality of the video service, which is often blurry, delayed or simply doesn’t work when needed.
A Pima County woman claims her deaf husband died at Oro Valley Hospital in 2016 as a result of not having an onsite interpreter.
In a lawsuit filed last year, the widow alleges she didn’t know her husband was about to die because the staff couldn’t communicate with her through sign language.
The National Association of the Deaf criticized hospitals that rely too much on video technology to communicate with deaf patients.
In 2016, the association advised medical providers to only offer video translators if onsite interpreters were not immediately available and with the patient’s consent.
“The deaf and hard-of-hearing community has become increasingly concerned about the over-reliance on this new technology without a thorough examination and dialogue on the appropriateness of the service,” the association stated.
During their multiple visits to the Chandler hospital, the Siegels began documenting their frustrations with webcam translators.
In one video they allegedly recorded in 2015, Dawn Siegel tries speaking sign language with a woman she sees through the webcam. The woman is on the phone and doesn’t respond back.
The woman then holds up a whiteboard to the camera with a message stating, “I need to speak to a nurse/doctor.” The Siegels try to get the attention of a nurse before the video ends.
Mitchell Siegel said the problems with video interpreters is scaring deaf people from getting the medical treatment they’re entitled to receive.
“There are a lot of people are not even wanting to go to the hospital for fear of the communication breakdown,” he said through an interpreter.
Dignity’s lawyers have argued hospital staff met their legal obligations by having deaf patients write notes in English.
U.S. District Court Judge Steven Logan has questioned this argument, finding the plaintiffs in the Siegel case might claim they couldn’t articulate complex medical issues through notes.
“Plaintiffs’ actual English proficiency and defendant’s choice of written communications presents issues of fact as to whether communication between hospital staff and the (plaintiffs) was truly effective,” the judge wrote in a 2019 ruling, “as well as whether written communication in those circumstances was appropriate.”
Janine Stanley, a counselor and deaf advocate for the Siegels, said doctors need to better understand why it’s not permissible to communicate through notes and gestures with deaf people.
A deaf person’s first language is normally American Sign Language and not English, Stanley explained. So, having a sick person write in their non-native language should not be considered effective, she said.
“Your brain is not working the right way when you’re sick,” Stanley said. “This shouldn’t be this way.”
The language barrier prevents deaf people from receiving other types of important services, Stanley added.
She’s one of the few licensed counselors in Arizona who also speaks American Sign Language, yet most deaf people have insurance plans not even covering Stanley’s practice.
This leaves deaf people not wanting to seek out help, Stanley said, because they want a counselor they can communicate with directly.
“There are many people out there not getting the mental health they need because of this reason,” she said.
The Siegels’ attorney did not provide a monetary value of damages they may ask a jury to award them. The attorney said she will determine the number during the course of the eight-day trial.