Last year was the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and many people assume that it is adequately protecting those with disabilities. Certainly, today’s culture has embraced certain changes, such as wheelchair access and fair housing expectations. However, the rights of the deaf and hard of hearing community have been frequently overlooked or misunderstood. To increase awareness and the importance of these rights, a deaf and hard of hearing rights movement has begun to gain ground.
One example of the ADA failing to protect the rights of the deaf comes from Lydia Callis. Ms. Callis wanted to give her mother a gym membership. When calling the gym in Arizona, she mentioned the need for a sign-language interpreter for her deaf mother to be able to understand the session. The health club declined to provide an interpreter, despite Lydia informing the club that it was required per ADA laws. This is just one example that shows the general misunderstanding or blatant disregard of the laws designed to empower people to have full understanding of the transactions and decisions affecting their daily lives.
As New York City leads the movement, a flurry of lawsuits has arisen. Last year, New York City’s Department of Homeless services settled a case that charged its shelters with failing to provide interpreters for deaf residents. Another case claims two local hospitals refused a deaf couple’s requests for interpreters after the husband had a heart attack.
Some ADA violators have been sued multiple times. At least three suits have been filed against the New York City Police Department. Last September, Opal Gordon, 53, was arrested for violating an order of protection. Police officers did not try to communicate with her and failed to provide an interpreter for more than 20 hours. Andrew Rozynski, a lawyer and fluent American Sign Language signer, accuses the Police Department of “flouting the law,” in regards to their failure to follow the provisions of the ADA.
Despite their past failures to meet the Americans with Disabilities Act’s laws, the New York City Police Department is finally implementing change. Three precincts are introducing a pilot program to help the deaf and hard of hearing gain better access to police services. Deputy Commissioner Susan Herman indicated that the program will give the department access to two American Sign Language interpreters. Supervisors will also have tablet computers to access interpreters by utilizing a translation service on Skype.
Another important milestone in this movement was recently attained. On March 14, Mayor Bill de Blasio signed bills that will benefit the deaf community. One bill requires all city agencies to dedicate at least one staff member to assist those with disabilities. Another bill ensures that promotional materials for public events organized by the city detail the forms of accessibility that will be available, such as Braille, interpreters, or large print.
As deaf and hard of hearing people and their supporters advocate for change, the movement continues to gain momentum. Organizations such as the New York Center for Law and Justice, a nonprofit offering legal and social services to the deaf and hard of hearing community, have been taking on ADA discrimination suits. The law is clear, however. The community and supporters must continue to demand that their voices be heard.