When Janie Morales goes to the hospital, she doesn’t want to speak to a computer screen.

Morales, who was born in Galveston and is deaf, said she was once brought to the emergency room of a hospital. When she arrived, she asked for an interpreter.

In response the hospital provided her with a video remote interpreting, or VRI, machine. It did not go well.

The hospital’s Wi-Fi was having trouble connecting to the machine, which allows an off-site sign-language interpreter to act as the go-between for deaf patients and doctors. The machine was freezing and taking more and more time.

“I must have a live person,” she said. “There was phrasing and technology difficulties.”

Ultimately, a social worker at the hospital intervened and got Morales an interpreter. But it’s an occurrence that’s becoming more and more common, she said.

On Friday afternoon, The Capsule Group, an advocacy organization focused on the rights of the deaf and hard-of-hearing, held a rally and informational meeting at Galveston City Hall, kicking off what organizers call a concerted effort to bring equality to medical care for people who are deaf or partially deaf.

While video technology is advertised as being cheaper and more convenient, using it in a medical setting can cause trepidation. Sign language, like other languages, has dialects, Storey said. A person that is beamed in from another state or country, may not be able to properly communicate with doctors, she said.

Besides that, technology is susceptible to malfunction. That’s why people should have a choice about how they’re interpreted, Storey said.

“People don’t understand that this is a language,” Storey said. “Technology shouldn’t dictate it.”

Morales was one of a handful of people who shared their struggles with communicating with doctors, nurses and other care givers, as the use of video chat technology grows.

Holding the rally, which drew 18 people, in Galveston was symbolically significant. The University of Texas Medical advertises itself as a leader in telemedicine, and one of Galveston’s most legendary figures, lifeguard Leroy Columbo, who was credited with saving more than 900 people from the Gulf of Mexico, was also deaf.

Storey said The Capsule Group intended to hold more meetings in other parts of Texas during the next year.

Next month, a provision of the Affordable Care Act goes into effect, which requires medical providers “to give primary consideration to the choice of an aid or service requested by the individual with a disability.” That means deaf people can choose whether to use video technology or a live, certified interpreter.

Storey said the provision is a start — the rule is already a part of the Americans With Disabilities Act — but said her group was working to gather more input from people about the struggles they have with video technology, with the hope of creating a proposal for legislation that would help deal with those troubles.

It’s time for action, she said.

“We’ve spent too much time just talking about communication,” she said.

Meanwhile, the group is also working to provide people like Morales with information about their rights. Every person at the rally was given a card that can be presented to doctors, asserting the right to a live interpreter.

“I am so glad to have that,” Morales said. “I will put that right in front of their faces.”

Contact reporter John Wayne Ferguson at 409-683-5226 or john.ferguson@galvnews.com.


Senior Reporter

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