D.C. Housing Authority has failed to provide deaf interpreters, lawsuit claims

Two hearing-impaired women have sued the District’s public housing agency, claiming that it has “routinely” denied them and other deaf residents sign-language interpreters as required under federal law.

Jacqueline Young and Latheda Wilson filed suit Tuesday in U.S. District Court. The D.C. Housing Authority, they say, has subjected them to “degrading treatment” by forcing them to communicate with agency representatives through “scribbled notes, attempts at lip reading, or bringing their children or other family members.”

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Those “inferior and ineffective means of communication,” they said, have interfered with their efforts to secure more-appropriate housing and have put their residency status at risk.

They are joined in the lawsuit by the nonprofit group Deaf-REACH, which says the authority’s failure to provide the interpreters have required the group to divert resources from other programs.

Dena Michaelson, a spokeswoman for the housing agency, said officials had not yet reviewed the lawsuit and typically do not comment on pending litigation. The Housing Authority, she said, has a “strong” program to ensure compliance with federal laws pertaining to the disabled.

Young, a Congress Heights resident, and Wilson, who lives in a Georgia Avenue NW apartment house, hold rental housing vouchers issued through the agency. Both consider American Sign Language their first language and have “limited comprehension” of written English, according to the lawsuit.

In one instance described in court documents, Young waited several hours in a Housing Authority waiting room only to be told at closing time that she had missed an announcement of her meeting and would have to come back another day.

On one occasion, the agency provided an interpreter for Young, after a lawyer intervened on her behalf. Every other time over the course of five years, the lawsuit claims, the agency either told her that no interpreter was available or did not provide one when she arrived.

Wilson said the lack of interpretation has frustrated her efforts to transfer her voucher to a more suitable apartment than her current insect- and mold-infested unit.

The lawsuit asks the court to require the housing agency to follow federal law and seeks unspecified compensatory and punitive damages.

Megan Cacace, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said some laws requiring government agencies to make accommodations for the deaf date to the early 1970s.

“This is not anything new,” she said. “The fact these people have accepted this kind of appalling treatment is simply unacceptable.”

A statement on the agency’s Web site said “DCHA is committed to providing programs in a way that does not discriminate against individuals with disabilities” and that “disabled individuals have the opportunity to enjoy a fully accessible Housing Authority.”

 
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