New Jersey lawyer focusing on special education law and employment law


Communicating with the Deaf and Speech Impaired

One of the most important cases that affect business owners in New Jersey is a case where a deaf patient repeatedly requested that her doctor hire a sign language interpreter. When the doctor refused to provide a sign language interpreter after repeated requests over a period of some 18 months, the deaf patient sued. At the end of the trial, the jury awarded $400,000 to the deaf patient. To learn more about this case, see NJ Doctor Sued for Refusing to Provide ASL Interpretation, Doctor Liable for Not Providing Sign Language Interpreter, and The Price of Disability Law.

It is important that small and large businesses be familiar with both federal and state disability laws that may affect their business.

Caption: A woman is fitting in a hearing aid

Like the blind and visually impaired, there are degrees of hearing impairments and speech impediments. How one communicates depends on one’s ability to hear, lip-reading skills, speaking abilities, and so on. Some people are deaf (cannot hear anything at all) and some are hearing-impaired (can hear a little or less than the average person). Some deaf people can read lips proficiently and speak well; others cannot and rely on sign language as the exclusive method of communication. Some hearing-impaired people need to hear and read lips simultaneously for effective communication. Hearing aids may help some—but not all—hearing-impaired people. The possibilities are endless.

When a person with a hearing impairment or speech impediment visits a business, it is sound business practice to find ways to communicate effectively. Sign language interpreters are not necessary in all cases. In simple business transactions, such as the selling of pizza, books, or clothes, exchanging written notes can be effective. These exchanges of written notes using pen and paper cost virtually nothing to the business owner. If you see a customer wearing a hearing aid, it is always a good idea to assume that the customer can read lips, so speak as clearly as possible and avoid covering your mouth or face.

A common communication tool among deaf, hearing-impaired, and speech-impaired individuals is the use of a telephone relay service. Several different types of relay services exist, but most share the same essential features. Suppose that Sarah, a hearing- and speech-impaired person, wants to order a pizza for delivery. Sarah dials the number for a relay service and asks the relay operator to dial the number for the pizza parlor. When the pizza proprietor picks up the telephone, the relay operator explains that a call is being made on behalf of a person who is either deaf or speech-impaired. Once the relay operator has provided simple instructions how to respond, Sarah will type “I would like to order one large pizza with pepperoni for delivery, please.” The relay operator will then read the message to the pizza proprietor. When the proprietor asks for Sarah’s address, the relay operator will type the message so that Sarah can read it and provide the information requested.

When a business owner receives a telephone relay call, federal law requires that business owners accept the call. Although the telephone relay service can take a little bit longer than the average telephone call between two hearing persons, the delay should mean very little to the pizza proprietor or any business owner. Money is being made: Without Sarah’s ability to call through the relay service, it would have been one less pizza delivered that night.

That a jury awarded $400,000 to a deaf patient who was denied a sign language interpreter should set off warning alarms to all business owners. The law requiring effective communication is clear. However, the cost of communicating with a deaf, hearing-impaired or speech-impaired individual is often nominal. If business owners take the initiative to find ways to effectively communicate with patrons, patients, and clients, there will be more opportunities for good, long-term business relationships.

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