I’ve written about dealing with inadequate hospital accommodations. Most anyone in the Deaf world knows that last-minute interpreting requests are tricky, at best, to accommodate, especially with specialized medical appointments.
I happen to know Christopher Rawlings from my UW-Milwaukee days. He has three children whom he adores. Recently, his oldest daughter went in for surgery; and later on suffered life-threatening complications that required a stay in the ICU. She’s doing better now. However: someone at the hospital seriously dropped the ball on this one, because at no point– save for a one-hour block after the crisis had died down– did the hospital secure a professional, in-person sign language interpreter for Chris, despite all his efforts to arrange one.
Here’s the story in his own words, after which I will proceed to dissect where the hospital fucked up– and yes, this situation warrants the f-bomb on what is normally a fairly family-friendly blog, because his kid almost died. Watch on and try not to rage, because this happens far too often in the d/hh world, and we really, seriously need workable solutions for hospitals, interpreting agencies, and deaf clients here.
Now, the promised reaming.
- This wasn’t an emergency or a walk-in. The hospital had time to prepare. Chris requested an interpreter well in advance– an in-person interpreter, specifically not a Video Remote Interpreter (VRI).
- He followed up three times– three!– to ensure that his request would be met. No dice.
- Instead of a live interpreter, the hospital consistently provided a VRI machine that took time to set up, biting into valuable communication access for Chris while the rest of the room exchanged vital information about his daughter’s state and care; and regularly shut down without warning.
- Now, VRIs can work, sometimes and in some situations. However, in this case, it wasn’t even close to enough for high-risk procedures nor highly-charged emergencies, much less one that involved multiple speakers. Chris covers a bit of the difference at 10:30 -“I couldn’t care less about nurses checking in for this or that — the VRI system is enough. But anything that involves my daughter’s doctors and her prognosis? I NEED a live, in-person, ASL interpreter!”
- VRIs run on high-speed Internet access, so having a good connection is vital– and often lacking, as happened here. When Chris brought this up at 11:05, their solution was to provide two VRI units.
- The hospital had time, during what turned out to be a 9-hour wait for his daughter’s initial surgery to finish, to contact several state agencies for an interpreter.
- The staff tried to recruit his wife, ex-wife (mother to the daughter), and his 14-year-old daughter– the patient— as interpreters. OK, it’s bad enough that they tried to ask the mother, then the wife, to interpret. Emotional investment, lack of impartiality, lack of expertise, etc., etc.– but the daughter?! A minor?! Who was also the patient?!
- When they did send an interpreter, they sent a Spanish one– twice.
Spanish.For a deaf man who uses American Sign Language. And whose family members all use spoken English.
There is more, but you get the idea. Someone dropped the ball, enormously, and kept dropping it throughout. This wasn’t an understaffed rural hospital; Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin is located in Milwaukee with decent-to-excellent national rankings in several fields. These people should know better. While Chris’s experience is one of the more egregious examples I’ve seen to date, stories like his are depressingly common in the d/hh world. Now, I don’t like to jump on the outrage train without looking into solutions. Chris is right; the system is broken and it needs to be fixed. But how?
I don’t have answers yet. I do have some specific questions to start off with. First, what can hospitals and interpreting agencies do in advance to prepare for and address situations like this, especially last-minute or emergency requests? Can a partnership be set up with local agencies where interpreters agree to be “on call” (much like nurses)? Can agencies or advocacy centers reach out to the relevant authority at hospitals to educate them? How feasible is it for a hospital to have a staff interpreter on retainer? How do they manage it with other language interpreters (e.g., Spanish)? Which hospitals do it right, and how do they pull it off?