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3 deaf patients from Snohomish County sue Providence over indignities

The Daily Herald - 7/27/2022

EVERETT — Providence faces a class-action lawsuit over claims the hospital system fails to effectively communicate with patients who use sign language.

The lawsuit, filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Seattle, alleges the largest health care provider in Washington violated the American with Disabilities Act and other federal laws in its failure to properly train staff, provide qualified interpreters or implement helpful policies to aid three Snohomish County patients who are deaf.

"As a result, doctors and other staff treat d/Deaf patients differently than other patients," the lawsuit reads. "For example, they often do not look d/Deaf patients in the eyes, direct their visual attention to interpreters rather than to patients who are d/Deaf, and do not know how to properly locate and use auxiliary aids and services."

(Deaf with a capital D signifies a specific group of people who share a culture and language, American Sign Language, whereas the lowercase word indicates a person with hearing loss, according to the National Association of the Deaf.)

In a statement, a Providence spokesperson said the hospital was investigating the allegations.

"The Providence family of organizations comply with all applicable state and federal accessibility laws and does not discriminate against anyone on the basis of disability, race, color, religion, national origin, sex, age, sexual orientation or gender expression or identity," read a statement from the hospital network. "In addition, Providence believes every patient encounter is sacred and all patients have the right to considerate and respectful care."

In the complaint, Kathleen Spencer, a patient at the Everett hospital, described being assaulted by a technician who became impatient with an American Sign Language interpreter in 2020. At subsequent appointments, the hospital reportedly did not provide interpreters, despite Spencer's requests. Instead, there were often technical malfunctions while trying to interpret via video conference.

At an appointment at Swedish Edmonds, which Providence St. Joseph Health operates, there was no in-person interpreter. A receptionist there brought out the machine used for virtual interpretation, but was "rude and unprofessional," the lawsuit claims. When Spencer called the hospital system's interpreter services department, the receptionist threatened to cancel her appointment before she saw a doctor.

Shaken up, Spencer ended up going forward with the virtual interpreter option to avoid more delays, according to the complaint.

Spencer has been going to Seattle hospitals, where interpretation services are reportedly better. But she'd prefer to go to Providence because it's much closer.

"I advocated for my needs repeatedly over the years at different Providence locations, to no avail," Spencer said in a press release. "It is discouraging & exhausting to see how no matter how much effort I have tried to put into improving things, discrimination continues to occur."

In 2020, Jason Viglianco, of Marysville, went to Providence Regional Medical Center Everett for surgery. He called the hospital twice to confirm there would be an interpreter present. But there was no interpreter when he arrived, the lawsuit alleges. He agreed to use the virtual option, but the connection was weak. The nurse struggled with it before giving up.

The man went through the surgery communicating with hospital staff via pen and paper. He felt this led to miscommunications, according to the complaint.

Edmonds resident Mandy Rodriguez reported she has moved to Swedish Mill Creek because she couldn't get an in-person interpreter at appointments despite requesting one.

The plaintiffs, represented by Disability Rights Advocates and the Good Law Clinic, note tens of thousands of people are deaf or hard of hearing in the Puget Sound region. They hope the lawsuit will compel Providence to ensure better interpretation policies.

"We are not asking for much," Spencer said. "We deserve to be able to go to appointments, have procedures, and visit the emergency room without worrying whether we will be able to communicate clearly or understand important medical information. We should never be forced to choose between our communication needs and our healthcare."

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