The Right to Assistance with Communication

People with disabilities have a right to assistance with communication. In BC this right is supported by the Human Rights Code and the Health Care Consent Act. The Human Rights Code prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities and requires accommodation of barriers linked to disability. This means not only building ramps and other mechanisms of physical accessibility but also providing assistance with communication. The 1997 Supreme Court of Canada decision in Eldridge v British Columbia (Attorney General), [1997] 3 SCR 624, which considered access to sign language interpretation, noted that physicians cannot meet their informed consent duties without “being able to communicate effectively with their patients”, concluding that “effective communication is an indispensable component of the delivery of medical services” (at 70 and 72).

BC’s Health Care Consent Act (s 8) also imposes an obligation on health care providers to communicate with people “in a manner appropriate to the adult’s skills and abilities”. This language means that health care professionals need to adapt their ways of communicating to suit the needs of a person with disabilities. Arguably, this provision will sometimes require including in the discussion someone who knows the person with a disability well and understands their unique communication methods. Certainly, sometimes skilled clinicians will be able to adapt their practice in order to communicate effectively with a person who has a disability. But this is not true for all people with disabilities and all health care professionals. Some people with disabilities communicate with subtle and non-verbal strategies, and it may take time to learn how they communicate. Even for people with hearing impairments, not everyone relies on American Sign Language.