ADA Business BRIEF: Communicating with People Who Are Deaf or Hard of Hearing in Hospital Settings

5People who are deaf or hard of hearing use a variety of ways to communicate. Some rely on sign language interpreters orĀ assistive listening devices; some rely primarily on written messages. Many can speak even though they cannot hear. The method of communication and the services or aids the hospital must provide will vary depending upon the abilities of the person who is deaf or hard of hearing and on the complexity and nature of the communications that are required. Effective communication is particularly critical in health care settings where miscommunication may lead to misdiagnosis and improper or delayed medical treatment.

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), hospitals must provide effective means of communication for patients, family members, and hospital visitors who are deaf or hard of hearing.

The ADA applies to all hospital programs and services, such as emergency room care, inpatient and outpatient services, surgery, clinics, educational classes, and cafeteria and gift shop services. Wherever patients, their family members, companions, or members of the public are interacting with hospital staff, the hospital is obligated to provide effective communication.

Exchanging written notes or pointing to items for purchase will likely be effective communication for brief and relatively simple face-to-face conversations, such as a visitor’s inquiry about a patient’s room number or a purchase in the gift shop or cafeteria.

Written forms or information sheets may provide effective communication in situations where there is little call for interactive communication, such as providing billing and insurance information or filling out admission forms and medical history inquiries.

For more complicated and interactive communications, such as a patient’s discussion of symptoms with medical personnel, a physician’s presentation of diagnosis and treatment options to patients or family members, or a group therapy session, it may be necessary to provide a qualified sign language interpreter or other interpreter.

Situations where an interpreter may be required for effective communication:

  • Discussing a patient’s symptoms and medical condition, medications, and medical history
  • Explaining and describing medical conditions, tests, treatment options, medications, surgery and other procedures
  • Providing a diagnosis, prognosis, and recommendation for treatment
  • Obtaining informed consent for treatment
  • Communicating with a patient during treatment , testing procedures, and during physician’s rounds
  • Providing instructions for medications, post-treatment activities, and follow-up treatments
  • Providing mental health services, group or individual therapy, or counseling for patients & family members
  • Providing information about blood or organ donations
  • Explaining living wills and powers of attorney
  • Discussing complex billing or insurance matters
  • Making educational presentations, such as birthing and new parent classes, nutrition and weight management counseling, and CPR and first aid training.


A doctor uses a sign language interpreter to communicate with a patient who is deaf.

Hospitals may need to provide an interpreter or other assistive service in a variety of situations where it is a family member or companion rather than the patient who is deaf or hard of hearing. For example, an interpreter may be necessary to communicate where the guardian of a minor patient is deaf, to discuss prognosis and treatment options with a patient’s spouse or partner who is hard of hearing, or to allow meaningful participation in a birthing class for a prospective new father who is deaf.

Individuals with hearing disabilities have different communication skills and the hospital should consult with each individual to determine what aids or services are necessary to provide effective communication in particular situations.

Sign language or other interpreters must be qualified. An interpreter is qualified if he or she can interpret competently, accurately, and impartially. In the hospital setting, the interpreter must be familiar with any specialized vocabulary used and must be able to interpret medical terms and concepts. Hospital personnel who have a limited familiarity with sign language should interpret only in emergency situations for a brief time until a qualified interpreter can be present.

It is inappropriate to ask family members or other companions to interpret for a person who is deaf or hard of hearing. Family members may be unable to interpret accurately in the emotional situation that often exists in a medical emergency.

Hospitals should have arrangements in place to ensure that qualified interpreters are readily available on a scheduled basis and on an unscheduled basis with minimal delay, including on-call arrangements for after-hours emergencies. Larger facilities may choose to have interpreters on staff.

Cited Resources
U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division Disability Rights Section
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