Deaf and hard of hearing fight to be heard

Recently, however, a deaf rights movement has begun to gain ground, particularly in New York.
Lydia Callis, a deaf-rights advocate whose exuberant sign-language skills won her a measure of fame during Hurricane Sandy, at Bryant Park in New York, March 8, 2016. A flurry of lawsuits is one sign that deaf rights are no longer being disregarded or ...
Lydia Callis, a deaf-rights advocate whose exuberant sign-language skills won her a measure of fame during Hurricane Sandy, at Bryant Park in New York, March 8, 2016. A flurry of lawsuits is one sign that deaf rights are no longer being disregarded or ...

NEW YORK — Lydia Callis wanted to get her mother a gym membership for Christmas last year. When she called to arrange a consultation, she mentioned that her mom (who lives in Arizona) is deaf and would need a sign-language interpreter for the session. The health club said it would not provide a signer. Callis — who became an Internet sensation during Hurricane Sandy as Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s exuberant sign-language interpreter — told the club that it was actually required by law to do so. Still it refused, and Callis, who was calling from Manhattan, gave up.

Last year was the 25th anniversary of the Americans With Disabilities Act, and yet this kind of scenario plays out regularly for people who are deaf and hard of hearing. While the broader culture has become accustomed to certain changes the law has engendered, particularly wheelchair access, the rights of the deaf have frequently been misunderstood or simply disregarded.

Recently, however, a deaf rights movement has begun to gain ground, particularly in New York.

One sign of this momentum has been a flurry of lawsuits. Last year, the city’s Department of Homeless Services settled a case that charged its shelters with failing to provide American Sign Language interpreters for deaf residents, and a suit filed last summer in Westchester County claimed that two hospitals refused a deaf couple’s requests for interpreters after the husband had a heart attack.

Another case involved Diana Williams, a deaf woman from Staten Island who was arrested in 2011 and was denied a sign-language interpreter, as the federal law dictates. In October, the Police Department settled her lawsuit for $750,000. Her lawyers, from the Eisenberg & Baum Law Center for Deaf and Hard of Hearing, said it was one of the biggest payouts of its kind.

“What’s disturbing about all these lawsuits is that the ADA has been in effect for several decades,” Eric Baum, one of the firm’s founders, recently said. Baum said his firm had litigated about 100 deaf discrimination cases, roughly half in the New York metropolitan area, many dealing with a failure to provide interpreters. He was sitting in the Union Square office alongside the Law Center’s co-directors: Andrew Rozynski, a lawyer and fluent ASL signer whose parents are deaf, and Sheryl Eisenberg-Michalowski, a deaf rights liaison who was born deaf.

According to Rozynski, many other law firms turn down such cases because they don’t want to pay for interpreters or are in the dark about deaf culture and ADA law. These are exactly the sort of cases that the Law Center, now in its fifth year, was created to handle. (One of the few other places specializing in this work, the New York Center for Law and Justice, a nonprofit that offers legal and social services to indigent people who are deaf or hard of hearing, has been handling an array of cases for more than a decade. About five years ago, it also began taking on ADA discrimination suits, including the one against the Department of Homeless Services.)

The law as it applies to its typical violators — police departments, hospitals, schools, government agencies or businesses — is clear enough, Baum said.

“But time and time again,” he said, “people ignore the laws that are written.”

What’s more, he added, some ADA violators have been sued multiple times, including the New York Police Department, which the Law Center has filed three suits against.

“Even though the Department of Justice forced them into an agreement,” said Rozynski, referring to a 2009 consent agreement requiring the Police Department to follow the provisions of the ADA, “they’re still flouting the law.”

This spring, however, the department is introducing a pilot program in three precincts aimed at helping the deaf and hard of hearing gain greater access to police services, said Susan Herman, a deputy commissioner. The program will give the department access to two ASL interpreting agencies, Herman said. (The current policy allows such interpreters only for scheduled events.) In addition, supervisors will have tablet computers for quick access to sign-language interpreters provided by a translation service on Skype.

These changes are exactly what the Law Center has been striving for. “We want to make sure that there is a correction,” Baum said. Lawsuit by lawsuit, their fight broadcasts a message.

Callis, the owner of LC Interpreting Services, said recently that she noticed a rise in requests for interpreters, which she chalked up to greater awareness of the law, not to mention a desire not to get sued. Callis, 34, was the only hearing person in a deaf family. A longtime advocate of deaf rights, she said her star turn with Bloomberg during his Hurricane Sandy news conferences made people “aware that deaf culture exists all around them.”

One of her firm’s services is to offer cultural competency training to help businesses integrate their deaf employees.

“Deaf people are becoming more aware of their rights and are learning to stand up for themselves,” she said.

Yet Callis argued that government has a role to play, like requiring licenses for ASL interpreters — a bill proposing this has stalled in the New York Senate. She also pointed out that New York state, unlike many states, does not have a commission for the deaf and hard of hearing.

One development came on March 14, when Mayor Bill de Blasio signed into law bills that will benefit the deaf and hard of hearing; one calls for all city agencies to have a staff member dedicated to assisting people with disabilities, while another requires that all promotional materials for public events organized by the city detail what forms of accessibility will be available, such as sign language, Braille or large print.

According to a 2014 census, there are about 208,000 people in New York City who are deaf or hard of hearing.

So it should come as no surprise that many events in the city cater to the deaf: museum tours, poetry slams, deaf-friendly happy hours.

At one happy hour this year, a group of people gathered at Pop Pub in the East Village. They greeted one another with hugs, sipping drinks and chatting as any bar patrons would — but they were talking with their hands.

Maleni Chaitoo was at a table conversing with a friend. A native New Yorker in her late 30s who lives in the Chelsea section of Manhattan, she produces a Web series, acts and works at the outfitter Patagonia with an iPad in hand, which allows her to text-chat with customers. “I see it as a job to show hearing people that they can interact with deaf people,” she said through an interpreter.

Though this was her first time coming to happy hour at Pop Pub, she saw lots of familiar faces from school or from other ASL events. “I came here to get my fix in my native tongue,” she said. “I need to socialize with people who can sign. I call them ‘my ASL people,’ who are deaf and hearing.”

Also present was Opal Gordon, 53, who lives in the East Village and is unemployed. (According to a 2013 study by the Annual Disability Statistics Compendium, only around 50 percent of deaf and hard-of-hearing people in the United States are employed.) “I love New York — this is my city,” Gordon said through an interpreter. “I’m used to this life, but deaf people struggle every day.”

Though hearing people sometimes react to her with apprehension, Gordon said, she is adept at navigating their world, and when she goes to a store or restaurant, things tend to be fine. “Take this situation,” she said. “We’re at a bar, we look like normal people and we’re able to interact. It just takes a bit more patience from people who can hear. We can even text back and forth.”

In September, however, when she was arrested for violating an order of protection, police officers did not try to communicate with her and failed to provide a sign-language interpreter for more than 20 hours during her custody, she said. With the Law Center for Deaf and Hard of Hearing, Gordon is suing.

“I feel strong,” she said. “I’m going to fight on behalf of the deaf community.”

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