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City settles suit brought by deaf resident

Not So Tone Deaf?

City settles suit brought by deaf resident


JULY 31, 2012

For the second time in a decade the city of Austin has settled a
federal civil rights suit, reaffirming its agreement to provide
training for Austin Police officers on how to effectively communicate
with Austin’s deaf population, including how to obtain interpreters to
ensure effective communication as required by the Americans with
Disabilities Act.

The lawsuit was brought by the Texas Civil Rights Project on behalf of
Esther Valdez, who is deaf and who was arrested in 2009 for resisting
arrest after failing to hear an officer yelling at her to stop walking
down a sidewalk along a busy street in North Austin. The story of
Valdez’s arrest was featured in a cover story in the Chronicle in
December 2010. The charges against Valdez were eventually dismissed,
but last year she filed suit against the city and against Travis
County, arguing that the two entities discriminated against her based
on her inability to hear. (The suit was initially filed ins state court
but was removed to federal district court in July 2011.)

In settling the suit the city has not admitted any fault, but has
agreed to a list of accommodations it will make for the hearing
disabled. In addition to reaffirming it’s commitment to training new
APD recruits in how to effectively communicate with the hearing
disabled – a commitment the city originally made in 2002 in settling a
case brought by a blind-and-deaf couple after they were arrested at the
Catfish Parlour in 2000 – the city has agreed it will require one hour
of refresher training for all officers every two years, “including a
review of APD’s operational policies and procedures on communicating
with persons with hearing disabilities and instructions on how to
obtain a sign language interpreter and other auxiliary aids and
services,” reads the settlement. Moreover, the city has agreed to
install videophones within APD’s holding room at the jail and at the
municipal court in order to ensure that detained individuals with
hearing disabilities have the same access to telephone communication as
do hearing individuals who are detained by police.

The settlement also calls for the posting of a simple sign in the jail
holding room, in the municipal court, and in the magistrate courtroom
within the county’s Blackwell-Thurman Criminal Justice Center that
informs the hearing disabled that they need only to point at the sign
to indicate that they are hearing impaired and in need of interpreter
services. (The city also agreed to pay TCRP’s attorney fees and to pay
Valdez $500, a nominal penalty allowed under the law.)

Valdez is pleased with the settlement, said TCRP attorney Joe Berra. He
said the city was very open to making the kind of changes necessary to
ensure fair treatment of hearing impaired individuals involved with the
criminal justice system. The changes, he said, will ensure that the
system “identifies the needs” of the hearing impaired right away. “We
are happy with the agreement,” he said, and with the city’s “proactive”
approach to handling the lawsuit. Berra acknowledges that the city has
been down this road once before, agreeing to train police and to ensure
effective communication for the hearing impaired, but that the changes
didn’t prevent future issues – such as in Valdez’s case. “Perhaps this
time around it will penetrate the institution more,” he said.
“Hopefully, it will stick this time.”



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