A local deaf couple spent their last days together “frustrated, frightened, humiliated and depressed” when a Tucson-area hospital declined to provide a sign language interpreter to help them understand the doctors, a federal lawsuit claims.
The husband died and his widow is suing Oro Valley Hospital under state and federal statutes that prohibit discrimination against people with disabilities.
William “Bill” Pascoe died Oct. 3, 2016, at age 79, one day after he was taken to the hospital by ambulance complaining of pain and shortness of breath.
His wife of 55 years, Anna Marie Pascoe, filed suit last year claiming her husband’s medical care was hampered by the couple’s inability to communicate effectively with hospital personnel.
Agencies that serve the deaf say the widow’s complaint is a common one.
Hospitals often are reluctant to provide live interpreters because of the cost and instead prefer webcam-based remote interpreters, a system that’s prone to malfunction and unsuitable in many medical situations, advocates for the deaf said.
In the Pascoe case, communication was so poor that Anna Marie Pascoe didn’t realize her husband was dying as she sat at his bedside, the lawsuit said. “She did not fully understand that Mr. Pascoe was about to pass away.”
American Sign Language was the couple’s primary means of communication. Rather than summon a live ASL interpreter, the lawsuit claims hospital personnel used questionable methods such as gesturing and lip-reading, which experts say is highly inaccurate.
Hospital workers also tried to set up a webcam-based video remote interpreting system, but the remote images kept freezing on the display screen, the lawsuit said.
The hospital, through its attorneys, denied wrongdoing and said in many cases, the hospital “is without knowledge or information sufficient to form a belief as to the allegations.”
“Defendant denies that it forced Plaintiffs to communicate in a medical setting using an unreliable and ineffective method,” the hospital’s attorneys wrote in response to the lawsuit claims. “Defendant denies that it engaged in discriminatory conduct and/or was deliberately indifferent.”
The two sides recently engaged in preliminary settlement talks, court records show. Barring a settlement, the case could go to a jury trial early next year.
Anna Marie Pascoe is seeking unspecified damages and a court order to force the hospital to improve communications with deaf patients.
Attorneys representing the two sides did not respond to a request for comment. Hospital spokeswoman Veronica Apodaca said the hospital does not comment on pending litigation.
The situation described in the Pascoe lawsuit is a familiar one for deaf people in medical settings, said Beca Bailey, a spokeswoman for the Arizona Commission for the Deaf and the Hard of Hearing.
“Unfortunately, it is very common. It happens on a daily basis,” said Bailey, who is deaf and has a deaf husband and son.
The commission offers training programs to teach hospitals how to better serve the deaf, but Bailey couldn’t immediately say if Oro Valley Hospital has received the training.
The remote interpreting systems hospitals tend to favor aren’t appropriate in many cases and aren’t effective without a properly trained staff and dedicated bandwidth to allow for clear imagery, she added.
Bailey said the commission recently held a public hearing in Tucson at which members of the local deaf community were invited to share their concerns. “Most of the negative comments were associated with hospitals in the Tucson area and their lack of knowledge,” about serving deaf patients, she said.
“This is a nationwide problem, not just in Arizona,” she added.
Nearly 50,000 Pima County residents identified as deaf or hard of hearing in 2016 according to U.S. census data, said Natalie Luna Rose of the Arizona Center for Disability Law.