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Complaint over denied requests for ASL interpreter leads to nationwide change at Kool Smiles dental offices

April 5, 2016: When Kim Ivon scheduled dentist appointments at Kool Smiles for her daughter, she always requested an interpreter, as her daughter is Deaf and communicates primarily through American Sign Language (ASL). But despite several consecutive requests, Kool Smiles never provided an interpreter. Frustrated, Kim contacted the Public Justice Center. PJC attorney Camilla Roberson worked with her to file a complaint with the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, describing how Kool Smiles violated Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and Section 1557 of the Affordable Care Act.

The OCR investigated, examining Kool Smiles’ practices in Baltimore and nationwide. They found that the failure to provide Kim’s daughter an interpreter was a symptom of widespread problems. For example, Kool Smiles’ standard operating procedure stated that having a parent, guardian or friend interpret during a dental appointment was an acceptable alternative to hiring a professional interpreter. This runs contrary to the law, which requires the use of professional interpreters in order ensure full access to dental care and to avoid problems of confidentiality, conflict of interest, competence, and appropriateness. The OCR also found that while Kool Smiles did record some information about client requests for interpreters, staff generally did not receive training on how to determine what kinds of aids or services clients need or how to communicate with people who are deaf or hard of hearing.

OCR staff provided Kool Smiles with technical expertise to change its practices, and in April, the OCR issued its report. Kool Smiles will implement a number of voluntary changes to ensure that its employees accommodate deaf and hard of hearing clients at its 125 locations across the country. The dental company will develop a fully compliant standard operating procedure and grievance procedure. It will develop an interactive process for determining the correct auxiliary aids and services needed by deaf and hard of hearing clients. Kool Smiles will create updated processes for documenting and fulfilling requests for accommodations. Staff will also receive annual training on working with deaf and hard of hearing clients. We’re proud that the Ivons’ OCR complaint will not only ensure that Kim’s daughter has an interpreter at dental appointments, but that deaf and hard of hearing clients will now receive fully accessible dental care at Kool Smiles offices nationwide. We also congratulate Kool Smiles for its willingness to become a model provider of dental services to its deaf and hard of hearing clients.