Sign This? Over My Dead Body.

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There’s been a string of lawsuits at hospitals across the nation for the lack of qualified and/or certified sign language interpreters, including one here in Minnesota that resulted in over 20 hospitals coming together for better accessibility. Mind you, these lawsuits aren’t about simple cases like having the flu or an ear infection; these are about solemn situations where lives were put at risk because the hospital didn’t consider the legality of consent for surgical and/or invasive procedures.

So why did “ER” – one of NBC’s top primetime shows – find it necessary to ignore all these lawsuits? In a March 30 episode, a deaf man is beaten by cops and taken to the hospital where an interpreter is never once called. Rather, Jerry, the bumbling idiotic front desk worker, suddenly becomes “trilingual” in American Sign Language. Sure, Jerry used the right signs, but it was obvious that he had simply memorized the handshapes instead of truly learning the language.

This made me remember when Shoshannah Stern appeared on the show. Back then, I laughed at how Dr. Weaver (played by Laura Innes), a poor signer, was able to understand Stern’s fluent signing without any difficulty. As an ER fan for all of the years it’s been on the air, I was quite disappointed at Thursday’s episode. ER has aired episodes in the past where stereotypes about deaf people were effectively tackled, such as Phyllis Frelich’s doctor character. So why didn’t Innes, who directed the March 30 episode, do her homework? Don’t say that she probably didn’t know about the lawsuits. A simple Google search would have brought up report after report. Besides, it wasn’t her first encounter with deaf people.

Sure, this isn’t a reality show; these are actors. They’re taking on roles that may or may not be realistic. Still, television shows have astounding influence upon society at large. They share information – or in this case, misconceptions – to millions of viewers. With episodes like last Thursday’s, ER promotes dangerous stereotypes about how easy it is supposedly to communicate without an interpreter for serious situations. And this is wrong.

David Pierce, CEO of Davideo Productions, moderates an e-mail discussion group devoted to deaf people and filmmaking. He writes in an April 2 message, “Films can be used to effect social change. In the case of Deaf films, portraying the Deaf community in a negative light can continue to propagate negative stereotypes and stigma in society, thus setting us backward in time after all the hard work we’ve done to promote our community in a positive way.”

Pierce’s nailed it on the head. ER has a responsibility to air accurate information, regardless of whether it’s a television show or reality show, along with removing inaccurate perceptions about deaf signers’ needs for clear communication.

I’ve heard so many horror stories about a lack of communication in emergency rooms. In fact, I’ve had a few of these experiences myself, and I can say this: there is no scarier feeling than going into a procedure not really knowing what’s being said or done, even though you’ve asked for an interpreter. Why in the world would ER want to promote these types of risky situations? Why would they create mistaken ideas that eventually result in legal nightmares and even loss of life?

I’m not sure, but one thing’s for sure: ER has lost one of its most loyal viewers.

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