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45 Years of Impact Spotlight

Fighting For Effective Communication in Government Services

Throughout its history, Disability Rights Pennsylvania (DRP) and its predecessors Disabilities Law Project (DLP) and Disabilities Rights Network (DRN) have fought for effective communications in government services.

In 1997, DRP’s predecessor and attorney Stephen F. Gold filed Anderson, et al. v. Dept. of Public Welfare, et al., to increase physical and communications access in the offices of providers in southeastern Pennsylvania’s HealthChoices health maintenance organization network. The judge found as a matter of law that HealthChoices was inaccessible and ordered that the Department of Public Welfare (DPW) establish accessibility guidelines for provider participation in the network. Following that decision, the parties entered into a settlement that required DPW to inspect all HealthChoices providers to determine if they are accessible to people with mobility disabilities and, if not, to require the facilities to be made accessible. DPW also agreed to require that the HealthChoices managed care organizations make their provider directories and member handbooks available, on request, to people with visual disabilities in alternatives formats, such as large print or Braille.

In 2004, DRP filed Charles B. v. Dep’t of Public Welfare, on behalf of three adults who are deaf and needed residential mental health services, alleging that DPW’s failure to provide the plaintiffs with residential mental health services with staff who can communicate using sign language violated the ADA. The lawsuit settled when DPW agreed to provide funding to develop a four-person home served by a provider who operates specialized residential programs for individuals who are deaf and required counties to identify and recommend strategies to address the needs of individuals who have mental illness and are deaf in the plans they submit to DHS.

In 2004, DRP filed Craig H. v. City of Philadelphia, on behalf of a man with mental illness who is deaf, to contest the city’s refusal to provide him with an appropriate mental health program that accommodates his deafness. The city placed the plaintiff in a residential mental health program, but neither the staff nor other residents used sign language, so that the plaintiff did not receive effective services and was isolated. Although a mental health program that specialized in serving clients who are deaf had agreed to serve the plaintiff, the city would not agree to the placement or make accommodations in his existing placement. After we filed the lawsuit, the city agreed to settle the case by placing the plaintiff in an appropriate residential mental health program that serves individuals who are deaf.

In 2008, DRN filed Hawkins v. City of Philadelphia on behalf of a woman who is deaf to challenge the City’s failure to provide her with sign language interpreters for hearings in Traffic Court. Although the Bureau of Administrative Adjudications had previously agreed to ensure that deaf litigants are able to request interpreters and receive information about how to request interpreters, those steps were not implemented. The parties settled the case, and pursuant to the settlement agreement, the City agreed to train staff to handle requests for interpreters. In addition, Philadelphia now provides information on notices and tickets concerning the availability of sign language interpreter services at hearings and how to request those services.

In 2010, DRP filed Harry M. v. Dep’t of Public Welfare, a class action lawsuit on behalf of Consolidated Waiver participants who are deaf, alleging that the DPW violated the ADA and the federal Medical Assistance law by failing to provide class members with effective communication in their Waiver services. The court approved a settlement agreement requiring DPW to take a number of affirmative actions to assure that deaf Consolidated Waiver participants have access to appropriate services with effective communication, including but not limited to: hiring a coordinator for deaf services; having an appropriate professional evaluate all class members’ communication needs; and including the professional’s communication recommendations in class members’ Individual Support Plans (ISPs).

In 2014, DRN filed S.A. v. City of Greensburg, on behalf of an 8-year-old boy who is deaf and needed an American Sign Language interpreter for soccer practices and games. The boy’s family repeatedly requested a sign language interpreter as a reasonable accommodation so that the boy could effectively communicate with his coaches and teammates. Despite years of making such requests, the family was repeatedly told by the City that it has no obligation to comply with the ADA for its recreational soccer program. DRN filed suit, and the parties participated in mediation. The mediation resulted in a favorable agreement, which provided a City-funded American Sign Language interpreter for the boy and provided funds to the parents to provide sign language interpreting services for future soccer programs that may not have such funds.

In 2016, DRP filed Deaidre G. v. Dep’t of Human Servs., on behalf of a client who is deaf and has autism. DRP alleged that the Department of Human Services (DHS) violated Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, and Title XIX of the Social Security Act by denying certain services to plaintiff, failing to provide other services in the amounts approved by DHS, and failing to provide effective communication in other services. As a result, plaintiff was forced to go without needed community services or received such services in an environment where she could only communicate with few, if any, people. The parties settled the case, and DHS agreed to authorize Adult Autism Waiver services in accordance with plaintiff’s needs as reflected in her approved ISP and require that services be provided by staff using effective communication methods.