Pittsburgh couple settles with doctor’s office

Originally appeared in Silent News, January 2002.

When a couple has a child that needs immediate care, they expect top-notch, accessible service. Even with the Americans with Disabilities Act having been enacted a decade ago, doctors’ offices and other medical providers often continue to violate the powerful law when deaf patients ask for equal communication access.

The Majochas aren’t any different. Anna and Darrin Majocha of Pittsburgh, Pa., filed a lawsuit against the Pittsburgh Ear, Nose & Throat Associates in March 2000, when the couple was denied an interpreter for their son’s consultation.

Darrin, who is deaf and communicates in American Sign Language, and Anna, who is hearing, were referred to the highly-recommended clinic in August 1999 for a surgical evaluation for their hearing son, related to a recurrent ear infection. An appointment was made, and Anna requested an interpreter for Darrin so that her husband could participate fully in the medical consultation. The office refused, but the couple continued to request interpreting services.

Anna said, “When the doctors denied us an interpreter, we felt frustrated and anxious because our son needed care and this care was being delayed. We were persistent with our request because we felt it was important to have both parents involved in the appointment and we also knew that we were entitled to have an interpreter.”

Anna also said that the office suggested that she come to the appointment alone, or that she serve as interpreter. “At one point, the office even questioned the effectiveness of communication between my husband and myself. It was insulting to have to explain that we do in fact know how to communicate with one another.”

The office persisted in trying to refer the couple to other clinics, but the couple refused because Pittsburgh Ear Nose and Throat was so highly recommended. The office proceeded to cancel the appointment, and sent a letter informing the Majochas that they would not provide medical care.

“It was truly embarrassing to receive such a letter,” the mother remembered. “At times, we were fearful of being blackballed by other doctors’ offices. We also worried that our son would receive second-rate care.”

In Sept. 2000, the federal district court deciding the case handed the Majochas a victory, denying a defense motion for summary judgment in its entirety. In his decision, Judge Donald Lee cited the letter sent by Pittsburgh Ear, Nose & Throat Associates denying the Majochas medical care and said the letter was “as close to a smoking gun as it gets in federal court.”

The couple, who settled for an undisclosed amount of money, said that their son ended up needing immediate surgery in addition to three surgeries after that. Interpreters were requested and provided for all visits.

“Even though the process of persistently requesting an interpreter was difficult, it was worth it in the end. There is legislation to protect deaf and hard of hearing people from this type of discrimination, but typically it is difficult to enforce, especially if you are working alone,” Anna said.

Anna works for the Arbitration Division of the Common Pleas Court in Allegheny County in Pittsburgh, in addition to jointly coordinating with Darrin the Deaf Youth Program at Pittsburgh Hearing, Speech and Deaf Services, Inc. Darrin also cares for the couple’s two children three days a week at home.

The doctor’s office, under the terms of the settlement, rescinded the letter it sent, and will provide qualified interpreters and assistive listening devices at no charge to patients. The clinic will also train all of the office’s staff and physicians on the new policies, in addition to posting signs in prominent locations advising patients of their rights.

Anna added, “We hope that these small steps help others who are confronted with these issues on a daily basis. Obviously, this case will only strengthen the ability of all individuals to enforce the current laws protecting Deaf people. I hope our fight encourages other families with Deaf members to stand up for their rights as well.”

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