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Deaf patients in Connecticut struggle to access interpreter services

Kim Silva (right) recounts the story of how she "thought she was going to die" from complications during a hospital visit in which a sign language interpreter was not available. John (left), her husband, is also deaf and was treated a year earlier for a stroke and also had no interpreter. Both have filed complaints with Hartford Hospital.
Dave Wurtzel
/
Connecticut Public
Kim Silva (right) recounts the story of how she "thought she was going to die" from complications during a hospital visit during which a sign language interpreter was not available. John (left), her husband, is also deaf and was treated a year earlier for a stroke and also had no interpreter.

Read a transcript of the radio story.

In November, Kim Silva went to Hartford Hospital for surgery. Silva is deaf and uses American Sign Language to communicate.

She asked the hospital to provide an interpreter. But there wasn’t one available to be present with her on the day of the operation. Silva went through the procedure anyway, and said it was a scary experience.

“I thought I was gonna die," she said. "I woke up in the recovery room. I was shocked I was alive.”

The hospital provided Silva with video remote interpreting instead. VRI is a tablet with a live interpreter on the screen. Many hospitals rely on video calls to accommodate patients. But these services don’t work well for everyone.

Silva's experience reflects a common challenge faced by people in Connecticut who rely on interpreter services. Advocates and residents say these services have been lacking in Connecticut hospitals, making it difficult to relay crucial information about medical care.

Luisa Gasco-Soboleski, president of the Connecticut Association of the Deaf, said difficulty communicating in the hospital is a systemic problem.

“I know there's been a lot of turnover of staff members at the various hospitals throughout the state," Gasco-Soboleski signed. "Information is not passed along. Training is not maintained.”

According to a recent report that identified the most pressing needs of the Connecticut Deaf, DeafBlind and Hard of Hearing community, 93% of survey participants said VRI shouldn't be used in health care settings, or used only as a last resort.

One reason is that sign language is three-dimensional, meaning it makes use of body language and physical space. It's more difficult to understand by looking at a screen.

Deaf advocates and residents interviewed by Connecticut Public said spotty internet service at hospitals has also presented problems. Weak connections can cause screens to freeze up while an interpreter is signing.

When she had surgery, Silva was restrained face down on the operating table. She said she couldn’t see the video interpreter screen before she went under anesthesia. An interpreter who was in the room with her would have been more effective, she said.

“The interpreter would have made sure that I didn't have the restraint until I was out," Silva said.

Silva’s husband, John Silva, was treated at Hartford Hospital one year earlier for a stroke. He is also deaf.

“My wife told me they took me in right away for a [CT scan] and she didn’t even know what happened because there was no interpreter," Silva said.

In an email to Connecticut Public, Hartford Hospital said it can’t talk about specific incidents, but the hospital prioritizes meeting the needs of all patients.

Luisa Gasco-Soboleski, (second from right) is the president of the Connecticut Association of the Deaf and says difficulty communicating in the hospital is a systemic problem.
Dave Wurtzel
/
Connecticut Public
Luisa Gasco-Soboleski, (second from right) is the president of the Connecticut Association of the Deaf and says difficulty communicating in the hospital is a systemic problem.

Some new efforts are underway in Connecticut to improve the situation.

Lawmakers are considering a bill to create a Bureau for Deaf, DeafBlind and Hard of Hearing Services. Members of a legislative committee heard public testimony on the proposal Thursday.

Connecticut Speaker of the House Matt Ritter told Connecticut Public the issues this community faces are significant.

“There has been widespread frustration from individuals who have reached out to their reps," Ritter said. "And I think it got louder over the last year."

The bureau would field calls, provide referrals and coordinate trainings on how to serve this community.

Connecticut previously had a Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing but it was shuttered in 2016.

David Bednarz, a spokesperson for Gov. Ned Lamont, said Lamont is aware of the ongoing discussions about how to increase access to these services.

“We look forward to being a part of these conversations to determine the best path to achieving these goals," Bednarz said in a written statement.

The Connecticut Hospital Association and the American School for the Deaf are also working on an interpreter pilot program.

Jim Iacobellis, the hospital association's senior vice president of government and regulatory affairs, acknowledged medical facilities in Connecticut need to do better.

“There shouldn't be a patient who leaves the hospital who says I had a hard time communicating," Iacobellis said.

Using federal funds, the program will offer free interpreters to patients at participating hospitals between March and June.

The program will launch with three interpreters, according to Jeff Bravin, executive director of the American School for the Deaf, located in West Hartford.

“Everybody's saying, yes, we need interpreters, but nobody can clearly pinpoint just how many interpreters are needed," Bravin signed.

Bravin said one challenge is a shortage of interpreters in the state. They aim to develop a pipeline and expand that pool.

This would benefit people like Silva and her husband.

“That was not right for us to be excluded like that," Silva said.

Bria Lloyd joined Connecticut Public as an investigative reporter for The Accountability Project in November 2022. She’s also the co-host of the station’s limited series podcast, 'In Absentia'.