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Judge: State of Georgia Discriminating against Deaf People with Disabilities

May 3, 2012

Georgia is discriminating against people who are deaf and developmentally disabled by denying them access to services, a federal judge has found.

In a recent ruling, U.S. District Judge Richard Story said the state has failed to provide appropriate group home care to such individuals, and does not have enough mental health care practitioners who are proficient in American Sign Language.

Story found the state to be in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act. In his order, Story said there was sufficient evidence to show that "deaf consumers, because of their deafness, and as a result of several institutional failures on the part of the state, are denied meaningful access to the mental health care services provided by the state to the general public."

The state and lawyers for the plaintiffs, a Gwinnett County woman and a Harris County man, are now engaged in mediation to agree on a remedial plan of action to solve the problem.

The two plaintiffs have been unable to find therapeutic group homes with properly trained staff to care for them, Story's order said. Both plaintiffs still live with their parents.

[On] Thursday, Atlanta lawyer Lee Parks estimated the case could affect thousands of deaf people. In an earlier order, Story granted class-action status allowing similarly situated individuals to join the ongoing litigation.

"This will change the way deaf and developmentally disabled folks get health care, fundamentally, in Georgia," said Parks, who represents the plaintiffs. "They've just been left aside. There's been a giant hole in the public health care system and we're getting it fixed."

Parks said he anticipates the remedy will require the state to set up programs to help prospective caretakers learn American Sign Language, and to make sure group homes are adequately staffed with the right professionals.

Tom Wilson, spokesman for the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities, said the state has hired its first-ever director to lead an effort to improve care for deaf and hearing-impaired clients with mental and developmental disabilities.

The state is in the midst of moving from hospital-based to community-based services for the mentally ill and developmentally disabled, with changes being made specifically for people who are deaf, Wilson said.

"We have already made progress on that and will continue to do so," he said.

News source: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution


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