WASHINGTON (AP) _ Thirty-two Connecticut hospitals agreed Friday with the Justice Department to set up the first statewide system of round-the-clock sign language interpreters for patients who are deaf or hard of hearing.

The department said the agreement with the hospitals and the Connecticut Office of Protection and Advocacy for Persons with Disabilities was filed in U.S. District Court in Hartford, Conn.

It would resolve a class action lawsuit brought by that state office alleging that Connecticut hospitals were violating the Americans with Disabilities Act by failing to provide sign language interpreters. The agreement is expected to be approved by the court and the class of plaintiffs.

``People with disabilities have an equal right to health care,'' but ``if doctors cannot communicate with their patients, the patients cannot get the health care that they need,'' said Assistant Attorney General Bill Lann Lee, head of the department's civil rights division. He commended the hospitals for agreeing to the new system.

The hospitals agreed to:

_Set up a statewide on-call system to provide qualified sign language and oral interpreters 24 hours a day, 7 days a week through Family Services Woodfield, a non-profit agency based in Bridgeport, Conn.

_Provide telecommunications devices that enable the hearing impaired to use public telephones throughout the hospitals and, when requested, in patient rooms.

_Add visual alarms where audible ones exist now.

_Train employees and volunteers in communicating with the deaf, and provide special training for emergency, psychiatric and social workers.

_Post signs advising that sign language interpreters and other aids for the hearing impaired are available free.

_Offer training to all affiliated doctors.

Fourteen of the hospitals will pay a total of $333,000 in compensation to 54 deaf, hard of hearing or other people who were affected by the past lack of effective communication. They also will pay $20,000 in attorney fees to the state Office of Protection and Advocacy.

``This statewide system to provide sign language and oral interpreters _ which is the first of its kind in the country _ will enable doctors, nurses, and other health care personnel to communicate effectively with deaf patients or deaf family members or companions of hearing patients,'' said Stephen C. Robinson, U.S. attorney in Connecticut. He called the new system ``crucial to ensuring that persons who are deaf or hard of hearing are diagnosed accurately and receive appropriate medical care.''

The state Office of Protection and Advocacy brought the original class action suit against 10 hospitals. The Justice Department intervened as a plaintiff and 22 other hospitals voluntarily intervened as defendants in order to participate in the shared system to provide interpreters and to avoid any future liability, the Justice Department said.

Recently, the department also intervened in and resolved a lawsuit against Maine Medical Center of Bangor, Maine. Under an agreement approved in May by a federal court, Maine Medical Center will provide sign language and oral interpreters and other aids necessary for hospital workers to communicate with the deaf or hearing impaired.

On June 15, a New Jersey hospital paid $700,000 to four deaf people in the largest settlement ever to end a lawsuit over failure to provide sign language interpreters.

The patients went to Jersey City Medical Center at least 300 times and never once had interpreters, even though one had a Caesarean section and another was HIV-positive and didn't receive counseling, lawyer Clara R. Smit said.

Federal law has required sign language interpreters in hospitals since 1973, but many of the nation's hospitals don't provide them, she said. ``Most hospitals haven't been doing this,'' she said. ``We're hoping this will tell other hospitals that they better start doing it. Otherwise, you're going to have to pay.''