Settlement Reached In Case Of Deaf Patient Who Was Denied ASL Interpreter

TRENTON – The Division on Civil Rights announced today that a private physician who did not provide a deaf patient the services of an American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter has agreed to pay the woman $10,000 to settle her complaint.

Dr. David Bullek, an orthopedic specialist, has entered into a settlement agreement with both the former patient, S.G., of Union County, and the Division on Civil Rights. (The division did not release the patient’s name for purposes of medical privacy.) The settlement resolves allegations that Bullek violated the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (LAD) with his handling of S.G.’s request to have an ASL interpreter present at her initial consultation for spinal pain.

In addition to paying S.G. $10,000, Bullek has agreed to attend training focused on how best to provide a reasonable accommodation – the LAD standard — for patients with disabilities including, but not limited to, deafness or hearing loss. Among other things, the training will cover the need for, and procedure for, assessing patients with disabilities to determine what accommodation is most appropriate.

Going forward, Bullek also has agreed to provide an ASL interpreter at no charge for patients who are deaf or who suffer from hearing loss. Under the settlement agreement, the orthopedist makes no admission of wrongdoing.

“This is a welcome outcome – particularly with respect to the training component,” said Division Director Craig T. Sashihara. “It’s important that physicians understand their obligation under the law when it comes to treating patients who are deaf, or who suffer from hearing loss.”

Sashihara explained that, contrary to what some may believe, it is not within a physician’s discretion to dictate how communication with a deaf patient will be handled, or to adopt “absolute” policies governing requests by patients for an ASL interpreter.

The director noted that, in light of laws designed to ensure patient privacy, it is particularly inappropriate for physicians or their staff members to suggest a deaf or hearing-impaired patient bring a friend or relative in order to facilitate communication.

“While it is true that physicians aren’t required by the LAD to provide an ASL interpreter any time a patient requests one,” Sashihara said, “a doctor must engage in an interactive process with the patient, and then make a considered determination as to what accommodation is the most appropriate.”

S.G. was born deaf. ASL is her primary language, and by her own account she has difficulty understanding English. Division investigators wrote in a prior report that S.G. appears “less than fully proficient” in writing conventional English sentences.

In May 2006, S.G. made an appointment with Bullek’s office in Westfield, and requested the services of an ASL interpreter.

She arrived for the June 2006 appointment expecting an ASL interpreter to be available, but was informed — in a note handed to her by a staff member in Bullek’s office—that: “According to the ADA (federal Americans With Disabilities Act) we are not obligated to employ an interpreter…”

The same note went on to advise S.G. it was the staff’s belief that she would “bring someone with you to help” when she arrived for her appointment. S.G. subsequently left the physician’s office without seeing Bullek.

Bullek later told division investigators he’d treated patients with hearing-related disabilities for many years, and that his method of communicating with them – including the use of lip reading and written notes – was always successful.

Although the division initially found no probable cause in the matter, S.G. successfully moved to have the case re-opened and, in 2009, a Finding of Probable Cause was issued.

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