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Australian Disability Clearinghouse on Education and Training
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US: Deaf nurse wins court case

Lauren Searls is a deaf registered nurse (RN), who has used American Sign Language (ASL) interpreters during her nursing education and works at Rochester Strong Memorial Hospital. She graduated from the Johns Hopkins School of Nursing and completed her education at Johns Hopkins Hospital (JHH). She performed admirably during her clinical rotations at JHH, and was offered a position as a clinical nurse. JHH rescinded the job offer following her request for ASL interpreters, citing direct threat to patient safety and cost. Searls filed a complaint of discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act. On January 21, 2016, the United States District Court in Maryland ruled in favor of Searls, granting partial summary judgment. United States District Judge Catherine Blake found that Searls has the right to accommodations, including an ASL interpreter, on the job regardless of cost as long as the job duties are not altered or shifted unfairly to colleagues. The overall operating budget of the hospital is relevant, not merely the department or nursing budget to financing the addition of ASL interpreters. Furthermore, the Court found that Searls’ track record of working in Rochester did not support the Defendant’s contention that her deafness posed a direct threat to patient safety. Blake also struck down JHH’s expert witness testimony on the basis that these expert witnesses were in fact unable to provide qualified testimony in Searls’ case because they lacked any experience with deafness and deaf healthcare professionals. Searls’ trial will proceed only to determine the issue of damages. The defense for JHH may consider appealing some or all of Judge Blake’s rulings.

In summary:

  • Patient safety may not always be a legitimate defense for not hiring a deaf healthcare professional
  • The overall hospital or business operating budget is relevant to arguments of cost
  • An ASL interpreter is a reasonable accommodation regardless of additional cost incurred since provision does not alter job functions or duties

AMPHL would like to congratulate Searls and her legal team on their perseverance in pursuing this case. It will open doors for other deaf and hard of hearing healthcare professionals to move forward from training into the workforce. We would also like to thank Judge Blake for understanding the spirit of the ADA and affirming the richness that we add to the United States healthcare system.