The Minnesota Department of Human Rights announced Thursday that it had reached a settlement with Fairview Health Services over its denial of an American Sign Language interpreter for a deaf man whose infant daughter underwent a battery of tests at a Hibbing hospital.
Shortly after the birth of their daughter, Julie and Matthew Svatos learned that she had some medical complications and would need a battery of tests, including one that involved radiation exposure. But Matthew, who is deaf, could not participate in discussions with the pediatrician at Range Regional Medical Center despite pleas to provide an American Sign Language interpreter, as required by both Fairview policy and state and federal law.
The state had sued Fairview in federal court after the Svatoses brought a complaint about their treatment. Under the settlement, Fairview will improve training for all hospital staff, clarify policies and report to the state for three years with detail about ASL services provided, including information about problems. There also was a confidential monetary payment.
Minnesota Commissioner of Human Rights Kevin Lindsey said staff training issues were a factor in the Svatos case.
“Unfortunately there wasn’t adequate training,” Lindsey said. “They will have to provide information to the department to make sure that these things are implemented.”
Following the birth of Stella Svatos, the pediatrician wanted to discuss her condition with both parents and obtain consent for conducting the test. But instead of providing an interpreter for Matthew — or even an off-site interpreter who could translate over a video connection — hospital staff asked Julie to interpret for her husband, even though Fairview policy states that family members should not be used as interpreters.
“They just ignored me. I was completely in the dark,” said Matthew. “I was astonished that they would not provide an interpreter when we were receiving medical information.”
The incident was one of many interpretation failures that the family experienced at the hospital, which initially refused to provide any ASL interpretation to Matthew because he was not the patient, even though Fairview’s policy and state and federal law require that deaf family members are entitled to interpretation services.
“It was a horrible experience,” said Julie. “We knew it shouldn’t happen. We knew that families shouldn’t have the best day of their lives taken away from them. It isn’t right.”
In a written statement Thursday, Fairview said it could not discuss the specifics of any lawsuit because of patient privacy.
“We assure you that it was and is our priority to provide interpreter services to facilitate effective communication between patients, their families and companions and the health care team,” the company statement said.
“We want to assure you that Fairview does comply with the law, and we take our obligations under the law to provide effective means of communication very seriously.”
This was the third lawsuit filed against Fairview for ASL services over the past two years. All of them involved deaf family members who were not given ASL interpreters. Fairview settled one of those cases and prevailed in the other, although plaintiff’s attorneys have filed an appeal.
In 2004, Fairview reached a settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice to resolve several ASL-related complaints, setting a standard for providing interpretation services for deaf patients and deaf companions.
“For the Twin Cities it was a sort of a landmark in the sense that after that case the mechanisms and procedures began to be in place at the hospitals,” said Roderick Macpherson, an attorney with the Minnesota Disability Law Center who was involved in the 2004 settlement.
“Providing an interpreter is not something that is a favor to deaf people,” Macpherson said. “Communication is two ways. They can’t get consent from the patient unless the patient understands what is happening.”
Macpherson and Heather Gilbert, the attorney who represented Matthew and Julie Svatos, said that ASL interpretation problems have occurred at other health care facilities, but most get settled without going to court.
“This settlement with Fairview represents an important milestone for the Minnesota deaf community,” said Gilbert. “In light of the multiple lawsuits against Fairview over the years for allegations of same or similar deaf discrimination … it is encouraging to see Fairview make these necessary changes to its policies and procedures and begin to take the right steps toward providing equal access to health care for all Minnesotans.”
Julie and Matthew Svatos say that Stella is doing well, an energetic young girl with a big personality. She also was born deaf. The couple believe they have set an example because their complaint created change.
“We hope that she’ll be proud that we did this, and we hope it will inspire her to do the right thing and stand up for others,” Julie Svatos said.