New Lawsuit Challenges State’s Discrimination Against Deaf Californians with Disabilities

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Class action lawsuit holds Department of Developmental Services accountable for decades of isolating deaf clients with intellectual and developmental disabilities

April 30, 2020 – SAN FRANCISCO, CA – Today, Disability Rights California and Disability Rights Advocates filed a class action lawsuit against the California Department of Developmental Services (DDS) on behalf of deaf individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD). The lawsuit charges the state agency with discrimination against deaf people who depend on regional center programs and services funded and administered by DDS. DDS’s data indicates that there are likely more than 5,000 deaf consumers who rely on its program.

DDS has failed to address the systematic discrimination against deaf people with I/DD who have been denied the accommodations they need for effective communication, such as interpreters, staff fluent in American Sign Language (ASL), or communication devices. Without effective communication, deaf people with I/DD are isolated from social interaction and denied the opportunity to communicate and meaningfully engage in the community. Many deaf regional center clients have lived for years in complete isolation, unable to express their frustration and unhappiness, lonely and desperately wanting someone with whom they can communicate.

This also poses a safety threat. Without appropriate communication, residential facilities and day programs cannot provide critical information about COVID-19 to their deaf consumers, depriving them of facts related to the virus, guidance surrounding safety precautions, and other necessary changes including revised schedules and closed programs.

The brother of plaintiff Josonia Bishara, said, “I love my sister Josonia, and this lawsuit is very important to her welfare. She is only comfortable communicating in ASL, but the staff in her group home and day program don’t understand sign language or get interpreters for her. She is very lonely because she has no one to sign with, which breaks my heart.”

The state agency’s lack of policies, procedures, or practices regarding accessibility for deaf people with I/DD inhibits them from communicating effectively and denies them the opportunity to benefit from the department’s services, programs, and opportunities that are afforded to people who can hear.

This lawsuit aims to ensure that the Department of Developmental Services provides equal access to programs, services, activities, and opportunities, in accordance with longstanding federal civil rights laws.

“Having multiple disabilities should not preempt someone from receiving the full benefits of DDS’s services, which encourage independence and community living for those with hearing,” said DRA managing attorney Rebecca Williford. “Our plaintiffs and so many other deaf Californians with intellectual and developmental disabilities have been systematically denied the right to communicate and isolated from those that live with and care for them. Only systemic change can ensure that our clients and the many others facing the same challenges receive equal treatment, as the law requires.”

Will Leiner, Managing Attorney with Disability Rights California, sees a moral and legal imperative to act. “There is no denying that our clients have been harmed because of DDS’s inaction. But we are hopeful that DDS will work with us to develop a comprehensive approach to ensure that their needs, and those of thousands of others, are met. The law is quite clear that deaf Californians have a right to effective communication.”

Plaintiffs Josonia Bishara, Lugene McCullough, and Gina Lamberton are all deaf and communicate in ASL or other gestural communication. They also all have intellectual and developmental disabilities, live in group homes, and attend day programs funded by DDS. However, neither the staff in their homes and programs nor the other residents and participants know ASL. Instead, the staff at the homes insist on communicating with plaintiffs via written notes and spoken English, which they don’t understand. In an emergency like an earthquake, fire or evacuation at group homes or day programs, staff would be unable to give plaintiffs instructions or reassure them of their safety.

Josonia Bishara was raised by Deaf parents and uses ASL as her primary language. Everyone in her family, including her adult brother, communicates through ASL. She is very close with her family and wants to include them in her life and future planning, but staff at the group home have refused to arrange for interpreters. Ms. Bishara has hobbies, including assembling puzzles, that she would like to share with fellow residents but is prevented from doing so. She frequently has severe migraines, but staff were unaware of the extent and intensity of her pain, because they did not provide interpreters. Ms. Bishara was only able to communicate this severe health condition to her service providers once she was represented by counsel and able to use the interpreter they provided for meetings. Ms. Bishara’s communication skills have deteriorated after 20 years without a communication partner, but she can and wants to improve.

Lugene McCullough was raised in Texas with a large family including two deaf brothers and attended a school for the deaf in his youth. Mr. McCullough moved to California to live with his mother in the 1970s and began receiving services from DDS shortly thereafter. Now in his seventies, Mr. McCullough has suffered for decades with neither communication partners nor appropriate habilitative communication services. He has been living in a group home without any signing staff or housemates for over twenty years. His day program also lacks any deaf and signing staff or participants.

Gina Lamberton was raised by Deaf parents, and ASL is her primary language. Ms. Lamberton is gregarious and friendly but lives in a group home where she is isolated from staff and residents and excluded from activities because no one else uses ASL and she does not have interpreters. She yearns for a home where staff and housemates also use ASL, so she is not so isolated. Without ASL interpretation, staff cannot explain her daily schedule, and she cannot communicate her needs, goals, and concerns or develop emotional bonds with staff or residents. In addition, she cannot deepen her involvement in social, professional, or vocational training opportunities – she likes to bowl and go shopping, and she helps with a Meals-on-Wheels program in addition to frequent vocational training. She has been diagnosed with chronic kidney failure and will soon require dialysis, and yet she is prevented from communicating medical needs or understanding and consenting to medical and mental health care.

The California Department of Developmental Services administers an extensive system of services for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. DDS contracts with a system of 21 regional centers, which are nonprofit agencies, to deliver programs and services using DDS funds and under DDS direction. DDS is responsible for overseeing the regional centers and ensuring that they comply with federal and state law. DDS has failed to adopt policies and issue directives to ensure that the I/DD services it funds and oversees are accessible to people who are deaf: the department has neither required regional centers to provide access to interpreters and programs with signing staff nor provided sufficient funds to do so.

This lawsuit was filed in the Northern District of California under Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, and California disability rights law. Rather than monetary damages, plaintiffs seek reform to the systems and practices that discriminate against deaf people with disabilities.

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Acronyms & Terms

ADA:   Americans with Disabilities Act
ASL:    American Sign Language
Deaf:   The use of the upper-case D in “Deaf” refers to people who share a language (ASL) and who identify as culturally Deaf. Often, Deaf people were born deaf and ASL is their first language.
DDS:   California Department of Developmental Services
DRA:   Disability Rights Advocates
DRC:   Disability Rights California
I/DD:    Intellectual and developmental disabilities

About Disability Rights Advocates (DRA): With offices in New York and California, Disability Rights Advocates is the leading nonprofit disability rights legal center in the nation. Its mission is to advance equal rights and opportunity for people with all types of disabilities nationwide. DRA represents people with all types of disabilities in complex, system-changing, class action cases. DRA is proud to have upheld the promise of the ADA since our inception. Thanks to DRA’s precedent-setting work, people with disabilities across the country have dramatically improved access to education, health care, employment, transportation, disaster preparedness planning, voting, and housing. For more information, visit dralegal.org.

About Disability Rights California (DRC): Disability Rights California is the largest disability rights program in California.  For more than 40 years, DRC has been California’s protection and advocacy agency designated under state and federal law to protect and advocate for the rights of Californians with disabilities. The mission of DRC is to advance the rights, dignity, equal opportunities, and choices for all people with disabilities. For more information visit: https://www.disabilityrightsca.org.

Click here to view fact sheet in ASL

Contacts

Chris Maccarone, Disability Rights Advocates: cmaccarone@dralegal.org 510-529-3453

Melody Pomraning, Disability Rights California: melody.pomraning@disabilityrightsca.org 916-504-5938