Georgia Found Liable for Discrimination Against Deaf Citizens

March 2, 2012

In a landmark case brought against Georgia by Parks, Chesin & Walbert, a federal judge ruled that the State is discriminating against people who are deaf and developmentally disabled by denying them access to services. Earlier the judge ruled that the that deaf Georgia citizens may band together in a class action to sue the State for denying them equal access to mental health services. In the suit, two deaf individuals allege that Georgia’s mental health agency failed to provide accommodations, such as sign language proficient counselors, to allow deaf persons to access public services.

Atlanta lawyer Lee Parks is the lead attorney for the deaf plaintiffs and their families. According to Parks, the goal of the lawsuit is to require the state to take steps to allow deaf persons equal access to the benefits of public mental health services. According to the lawsuit, Georgia presently has a lack of therapists, social workers, and other mental health professionals who speak American Sign Language (ASL), which is the primary form of communication for deaf persons. “In mental health, more than any other area, communication is of utmost importance, says Parks. “Without mental health professionals who speak their language, deaf people are denied any therapeutic benefit from the services the state provides.”

In addition, the state has not taken steps to ensure that “group home” arrangements are available for deaf persons with developmental disabilities. As a result, deaf persons are often “warehoused” in homes in which they cannot communicate with those around them.

Gale Belton is the mother of Renita Belton, one of the individuals named in the lawsuit. Belton decided to seek legal recourse after being rejected by numerous state-sponsored “group homes” due to her daughter’s deafness. Belton purchased a home in 2007 with her own money, intending to equip it as a deaf-accessible group home, in the hopes of attracting qualified staff persons. However, even with the home, says Belton, appropriate staff is very difficult to find. The lack of a dedicated deaf services program made it extremely burdensome to find qualified professionals to work with her daughter. “We just kept running into one brick wall after another,” says Belton. The court spelled out the issue in its order granting class action status:

“[t]he lack of mental health staff trained to communicate with the Deaf makes it difficult for the Deaf to derive benefit from the services and/or funds that the [Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disability] does provide. For instance, in seeking out community-based treatment options, Plaintiffs . . . were unable to locate appropriate services. In contrast, hearing individuals who do not require special services in order to communicate with counselors, have the opportunity to receive mental health services in either individualized settings or in group homes.”

— U.S. District Court Judge Richard W. Story

Today, these citizens are one step closer to obtaining relief. The discrict judge granted judgment to the plaintiffs on the issue of liability, finding that the State failed to make reasonable modifications to the services it provides in light of the needs of deaf persons. A copy of the decision can be found here. The judge described the gist of the problem as follows:

“the Plaintiffs in this case argue that the State has offered its residents a “one size fits all” mental health care program without taking into account the needs of deaf consumers, in particular, their reliance on ASL to communicate. This, Plaintiffs contend, runs afoul of the ADA and the State’s obligation to make reasonable modifications to its services to provide disabled persons with meaningful access to them. The Court agrees.”

Parks is negotiating on behalf of the class for an agreement for the State to provide appropriate services and funding. “Unfortunately, communities such as this often get overlooked during tight budget times,” says Parks. “Our mission is to make sure that deaf Georgians who are most in need of these services aren’t left out in the cold.”

The case, Belton v. Georgia, Civil Action No. 1:10-CV-00583, is currently pending in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Georgia.

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