Lawsuit: Sign-language interpreters fail to communicate

Nicki and Kris Runge have been trying to get pregnant. They’re working their way through a multi-year infertility treatment involving numerous medications, evaluations and an egg donor. Both said it’s as emotionally difficult as it is medically complex. They looked forward to sharing their experiences at a doctor-sponsored group therapy session with other couples last February.

Yet almost as soon as the session got started, Nicki Runge, who is deaf, began to feel more and more alone.

“Everyone’s sharing their stories. It’s an open discussion. It’s very emotional. I’m watching the interpreter, but she’s not getting everything they’re saying, and I’m not understanding her signs,” Nicki explained. “I kept tapping Kris and being like: What did she mean when she signed that?”

“I thought the group session could have been a very valuable thing because you’re actually sitting there with people at all different stages in the process and some of them have actually had a child through the process and are sharing their experiences,” said Kris, who is not deaf, but is well-versed in American Sign Language.

“That’s exactly the sort of thing we needed to hear about,” he said. “We needed to know what’s the final outcome of years of work trying to get pregnant. How does this feel in the end? But I can’t get excited about hearing that when Nicki’s not. Then I try to fill in the gaps and miss what’s going on as well.”

Nicki made a sign that hits like the visual version of an onomatopoeia. Her fingers wiggle like steam rising from her belly.

“I started to feel just really upset. I was stewing as I was sitting there. I knew this was not a certified interpreter.”

Indeed, Nicki said the interpreter resorted to the cumbersome Signing Exact English even though most deaf people use ASL because it is faster and clearer.

Nicki tried to express how she was feeling, signing through the emotional difficulties of dealing with egg donors and adding that the process has been made much harder by a series of interpreters who make a lot of errors.

“At that point the interpreter refused to speak what I was signing. Her mouth just stopped moving.”

When Nicki asked if she was certified as a Registered Interpreter for the deaf, the interpreter signed “no” and then left before the therapy session was over.

Attorney Amy Robertson at the Civil Rights Education and Enforcement Center said that deaf people often encounter unqualified and sometimes inept interpreters in high-stakes situations like medical procedures, social services encounters and school meetings.

Robertson is representing the Runges and several other deaf people in a lawsuit targeting not the uncertified interpreters themselves, but the agency, A&A Languages, which advertises them as “sign language interpreters.” That title, said Robertson, requires RID certification under the Colorado Consumer Protection Act.

“You could know the law really well having not passed the bar, but you still couldn’t practice law,” Robertson explained. “Certification ensures a minimum level of quality and professionalism.”

That quality and professionalism is absolutely critical when it comes to navigating medical situations, said the Runges.

The breakdown of communication in the group therapy session was not Nicki’s first brush with an uncertified A&A interpreter.

Earlier in the in vitro process, Nicki was having a uterine exam. Her interpreter opted to sit next to the gynecologist, which felt to Nicki like an invasion of privacy. She had to ask her interpreter to sit by her shoulder, instead – an obvious sign that the interpreter lacked basic professional training.

But the issue is larger than privacy or awkwardness. Nicki is on a complex course of fertility medications which come with strict dosing rules and regimes.

“I don’t want to mess up with the medication,” Nicki said. “If they give me an unqualified interpreter and I follow what that person misinterpreted, it could cause damage to my body… that [miscommunication] could be a threat to any deaf patient’s life.”

Denver Public Health, Jefferson County Social Services and Adams County all contract with A&A Languages, which attorney Roberts said puts them at risk of violating the Americans with Disabilities Act’s promise that the deaf will be ensured “effective communication.”

However, Robertson and the Runges decided to sue A&A languages and not the groups that contract with them in an effort to, in Robertson’s words, “go after the supply, not the demand.”

Both the Runges and Robertson said they have reached out to the agency to ask it to stop deploying uncertified interpreters. They also reached out to the interpreters themselves. One was very apologetic and agreed to stop interpreting without certification. The other didn’t think she was doing anything wrong.

A&A languages declined to comment for this story.

“From our conversations with A&A and [the interpreter], I don’t think they have any intention of stopping what they’re doing,” said Kris. “For me that’s the primary goal of this lawsuit: Stop. We seriously mean you need to stop. You need to follow the law.”

The couple said that since they filed the suit on Thursday, they’ve heard from dozens of deaf people who have had problems with the agency. The fight to communicate is so common in the deaf community that Nicki said she is already receiving messages of support and thanks from across the state and across the nation.

“Everything works together,” said Kris. “If one link in the chain is broken, everything is broken.”

 

Photo courtesy of Kris and Nicki Runge. 

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