Georgia’s institutional discrimination against mentally disabled deaf citizens is coming to a close in a class action lawsuit brought against the State under Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act. U.S. District Court Judge Richard W. Story issued a final remedial order on June 18, 2013, in the case of Renita Belton et al. v. State of Georgia, case #1:10-cv-0583-RWS. The decision brings us one step closer to ending a long-running fight to end the State’s discrimination against Georgia’s Deaf citizens by failing to provide them with equal access to publicly-funded mental health care.
The relief provided in the United States District Court’s order was broad. The most important element of the Order is a mandate that the State train and maintain ASL fluent clinicians to treat the Deaf. In addition, the State has been given five years to implement the following services:
- Maintain an Office of Deaf Services with a full time Director who has a human services related master’s degree and is fluent in American Sign Language;
- Hire a full-time Community Service Coordinator, to oversee a comprehensive state-wide program to ensure equal treatment of Deaf Georgians needing public health care;
- Hire a Communication Access/Sign Language Coordinator to ensure interpreters are available state-wide to assist in the diagnosis and treatment of the Deaf by hearing clinicians;
- Staff six regional offices to assist the Deaf in locations near their homes;
- Conduct a communications assessment of all Deaf patients to ensure they can communicate with their health care providers, including those committed to state hospitals; and
- Provide comprehensive residential services so Deaf citizens with mental health issues can live in group homes assisted by ASL trained staff so they can gain some modicum of independence as they become adults. This is a critical aspect of the remedy as the State does not currently provide the Deaf the same meaningful access to residential options it provides hearing citizens with developmental disabilities.
“A new day for Georgia’s mentally disabled deaf citizens”
Lee Parks, lead counsel for the class, heralded “a new day” for Georgia’s mentally disabled deaf citizens. For too long, hearing impaired persons with mental disabilities have not been provided equal access to publicly funded mental health care. Until now, the State of Georgia categorically denied Deaf citizens the ability to meaningfully communicate with mental health care professionals so they could be correctly diagnosed and treated. Georgia now has the opportunity, with the court’s continued assistance, to become a leader in providing Deaf citizens quality public mental health care. “It was a long hard fight,” Parks allowed, “but well worth it.” “Deaf citizens have had a victorious day in court by a caring and wise judge.”