U.S. Judge to Aid State’s Deaf Human Service System Clients

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A federal judge is being asked to approve a settlement of a class-action lawsuit that would ramp up the state’s responsibility to individuals who are deaf.

A key provision of the proposed deal U.S. Middle District Chief Judge Yvette Kane is weighing would require the state Department of Public Welfare to hire sign language interpreters and other specialists to improve communications with deaf clients in the human services system.

About 250 such clients have been identified so far in the state’s system of group homes and other service providers, according to filings in the case.

Also, DPW would have to pay $450,000 to the Disability Rights Network of Pennsylvania, which filed the lawsuit against DPW in 2010 on behalf of a client identified in court papers only as Harry M.

In seeking approval of the settlement, the rights network stated that DPW officials also have signed off on the proposed deal.

The rights network claimed in its lawsuit that the state is not properly helping Pennsylvanians who are deaf, because service providers often cannot effectively communicate with them.

Clients who would be affected by the settlement receive services from their home counties through the state-funded Home and Community-Based Waiver, also known as the Consolidated Waiver program.

The rights network used Harry M.’s example to highlight what it claimed were the state’s deficiencies. It claimed that the 69-year-old Erie County man, who lives in a group home, became so frustrated with communication problems that he once threw furniture and injured his hand.

The proposed settlement was reached through months of negotiations involving a federal magistrate judge.

If Kane approves the deal, DPW would have to:

  • Appoint a deaf services coordinator within three months. That person would have to be versed in “deaf culture,” have experience dealing with the intellectually disabled and be fluent in American Sign Language.
  • Hire a consultant to assist the coordinator in developing training programs and procedures for conducting mandatory assessments of the clients’ communications capabilities and needs.
  • Match housemates and providers to ensure optimum communication among deaf and intellectually disabled clients and their service providers.
  • Invest in “assistive technology” to improve such interaction.

Providers who serve those clients would be permitted to request higher state reimbursements due to the added demands, especially the requirement to have sign language interpreters available.

If Kane approves the settlement, the parties will have up to six years to dismiss the lawsuit to ensure that all the terms of the deal are met.

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