Disability rights group sues Tennessee hospital for lack of sign language interpreter

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News from Tennessee

Robert Buttrum, a deaf man, was admitted to the Cookeville Regional Medical Center on December 31, 2012. For the next eight days, Buttrum was unable to communicate with medical staff at the hospital, which, despite his repeated requests, failed to provide a qualified sign language interpreter.

At one point, Buttrum urinated in his bed, when the hospital staff failed to respond when he pressed the call button. On another occasion, blood from his IV leaked onto him, when staff again failed to respond.

In February 2014, he was admitted for a sinus infection. The hospital did not have video remote interpreting (VRI) services available, again preventing him from effectively communicating with hospital staff. Eight months later, again at the same facility, the VRI froze four times, and was otherwise blurry and choppy.

On November 21, Disability Rights Tennessee filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of Buttrum and Michael Hill, a deaf man who assists Buttrum on his hospital visits, accusing the hospital of acting with “reckless disregard” and “deliberate indifference” to their rights.

“It’s distressing that anyone has to go to these lengths to simply talk with their doctors,” Sherry A. Wilds, senior attorney at Disability Rights Tennessee, said in a news release.

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, public entities, such as hospital are required to “take appropriate steps” to provide communications with people with disabilities that are “as effective as” those for people without disabilities.

The complaint also includes allegations under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, which similarly prohibits entities receiving federal financial assistance from discriminating against people with disabilities.

In addition to seeking a declaration that the hospital comply with these laws, the lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee, also seeks damages for emotional distress.

Disability Rights Tennessee and Disability Rights Washington, which operates this Galaxy website, are part of the federally funded protection and advocacy system and members of the National Disability Rights Network.