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Sign Language Interpreters in Healthcare

Advocacy tips for asking your health care provider for a sign language interpreter

The first step is to know your rights! The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) says healthcare providers must give you a sign language interpreter if you need one for effective communication.

When would that be? When you and your healthcare provider are discussing something that is complicated and takes time to explain.

For example, if it would take a long time to explain your diagnosis and treatment with written notes, you probably have the right to an interpreter. Also, if you understand better when you sign than when you read, you probably have the right to an interpreter. You have the right to an interpreter to discuss the results of testing or to discuss other important medical information with your doctor.

Learn about the Medicaid Communication Access Services, which can reimburse providers for the cost of Communication Access Services.

These brochures on DHHS’ website also contain information to help providers and others understand the communication needs of people who are deaf or hard of hearing.

You do not always have the right to a sign language interpreter

You do not have the right to an interpreter every time you are in a healthcare setting. For example you do not have the right to an interpreter:

  • When filling out medical history forms. 
  • To schedule an appointment with your healthcare provider. 
  • While you are in the hospital. 
  • During routine checks of your vital signs and blood pressure.

How to ask for an interpreter 

  1. Call at least one week before the appointment and ask for an interpreter.
      • When you call, tell your healthcare provider that you are a person with deafness or hearing loss and you need a sign language interpreter during your appointment to effectively communicate.
  2. If you are told by _________that no interpreter will be provided: 
      • The receptionist or nurse: Get a second opinion! Politely ask the receptionist or nurse to take your request directly to the doctor or other treating professional. Explain that you are asking for an interpreter under the Americans with Disabilities Act. 
      • The doctor or treating professional: Educate! Ask if the doctor or treating professional knows that the Americans with Disabilities Act gives you a legal right to an interpreter. Explain that you can provide a letter explaining your right to an interpreter. 
  3. Give the healthcare provider the letter that explains your right to an interpreter. View sample letter.
  4. Follow up on your letter
      • After a few days, call the healthcare provider. Ask if the provider has read the letter, and if she has changed her mind and will give you an interpreter. If she says “no,” ask why not. Ask if she understands the Americans with Disabilities Act. You also may want to say that you are prepared to complain to the U.S. Department of Justice (the agency that enforces the ADA). Ask again if she will reconsider and provide an interpreter. I
  5. If you are still unable to get an interpreter, ask for help. 
      • Call Disability Rights NC (877-235-4210), your local office of Legal Aid of North Carolina, or a private attorney to help you stand up for your right to an interpreter. 
      • You also may file a complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice. 
      • Address your complaint to:
        U.S. Department of Justice
        Civil Rights Division
        950 Pennsylvania Avenue NW,
        Disability Rights Section–NYAV,
        Washington, DC 20530.
      • If you have any questions about how to file a complaint, call the Department’s ADA Information Line at (800) 514–0301. 

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