Providing sign language in dental practices

It is a question asked regularly of CDA Practice Support analysts — under what circumstances does a dental practice need to provide a sign language interpreter for a patient? The CDA Practice Support resource titled Americans with Disabilities Act and Disability Rights Laws offers valuable information about accommodations that dental practices are obligated to provide under the law.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (AwDA) and related state and federal laws prohibit discrimination on the basis of disability in employment, government, public accommodations, education, commercial facilities, telecommunications and transportation. The law also helps guarantee access to places of public accommodation, including dental offices, for persons with disabilities.

Compliance with these laws includes communication that is offered in forms that are readily understood by employees and patients. This may include the obligation to provide sign language interpreters at no cost to the patient.

Practices are required to communicate with a deaf or hearing-impaired patient so that the patient is able to understand what is being said to him or her. The options for communicating to a hearing-impaired patient include using the following:

  • Printed or written instructions, questions, responses via paper and pen, computer or other device.
  • Lipreading.
  • Sign language.

Practices should ask patients about their preferred method of communication. While not all hearing-impaired patients request a sign language interpreter for their appointments, be prepared to provide one if requested.

CDA Practice Support offers a list of agencies that provide sign language interpreters or referrals to interpreters. Most require two weeks' notice prior to the appointment. Additionally, Denti-Cal will provide interpreters for its beneficiaries with advance notice.

If a patient brings his or her own sign language interpreter for an office visit without prior consultation and bills the practice for the cost of the interpreter, the practice is not obligated to pay for it. The provider must be given an opportunity to consult with the patient and make an independent assessment of what type(s) of auxiliary aid, if any, is necessary to ensure effective communication. If a patient believes the provider's decision will not lead to effective communication, then a challenge can be filed by initiating litigation or filing a complaint with the Department of Justice.

CDA Practice Support offers additional resources to ensure practices are in compliance with disability access laws, including Best Defense Against Disability Lawsuits: Compliance. For more information on this resource and Americans with Disabilities Act and Disability Rights Law, visit cda.org/practicesupport.