Hearing-Impaired Clients' Needs May Go Unheeded

Despite an acknowledgement that mental health issues exist among the deaf and hard of hearing, many social workers are unaware of the extent to which they must accommodate these clientele, said NASW Associate Counsel Sherri Morgan.

Morgan is co-author of NASW's September 2009 Legal Issue of the Month: "Social Workers and Accommodations for Deaf and Hard of Hearing Clients."

Morgan said social workers are not bound only by ethical obligations to ensure that hearing-impaired clients have equal access to services. She points out that in addition to the NASW Code of Ethics prohibiting social workers from discriminating on the basis of mental or physical disability, state and federal laws such as the Americans with Disabilities Act compel health care providers to make reasonable accommodations.

Specifically, the ADA requires health care providers, including social workers in agencies and private practices, to provide "appropriate auxiliary aids and services where necessary to ensure effective communication with individuals with disabilities." These may include qualified interpreters, computer-aided transcription services and telecommunication devices for deaf persons. An exception may apply if the provider can document that supplying the requested accommodation constitutes an undue financial and administrative burden.

"Furthermore," Morgan said, "social workers shouldn't rely on hearing-impaired clients' family members or friends to interpret for them. It may be clinically inappropriate, for example, to involve a child in adult discussions. Also, sometimes the terminology used in therapy may be difficult to translate accurately into sign language. But the bottom line is that the burden shouldn't be on the client to provide the accommodations."

Members can access Social Workers and Accommodations for Deaf and Hard of Hearing Clients, which provides an overview of the ethical and legal considerations social workers need to know as well as helpful resources, and other Legal Issue of the Month articles on the Web.