Deaf people deprived of ASL interpreters in Tennessee-funded programs, lawsuit claims

Two Tennessee departments are being sued for not providing access to American Sign Language interpreters. / Getty Images

Dontay Battle is deaf and lives in a state-funded Shelby County group home for adults with intellectual disabilities where neither the staff nor his roommate communicate in the only language he knows: American Sign Language.

After aging out of Tennessee's child welfare system, Battle - now 20 - lives under the oversight of the Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, which provides no staff or interpreters fluent in ASL in his group home, at his medical appointments or during regular "person-centered" meetings whose purpose is to understand Battle's wishes for day-to-day living and his goals for the future.

In February 2020, Battle was admitted to a psychiatric hospital where he was diagnosed with depression, aggression, psychosis and suicidal ideations. His doctors attributed his condition, in part, to feelings of isolation. Their discharge plan advised Battle to talk to staff in his group home if he felt depressed. It also provided him with a phone number to a suicide hotline.

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Battle, however, is unable to talk to staff who do not use American Sign Language, and he cannot call the suicide hotline because he has not been provided the technology that enables deaf people to communicate via phone.

Battle, whose circumstances are laid out in an 88-page legal petition, is one of five deaf people that use American Sign Language who are suing the state's Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities and the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services over their alleged failures to provide equal access to services under the Americans with Disability Act and under a 1973 federal Rehabilitation Act, which bars discrimination against anyone receiving federally funded services.

"This has been a systemic problem for a very long time," said Stacie Price, an attorney with Disability Rights Tennessee, which is also one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, representing clients across the state. "These are services that are critical to a person in every aspect of their life."

The lawsuit, filed in federal court Jan. 14, is seeking monetary compensation for Battle and other plaintiffs, along with a finding that the two state agencies have violated federal law by discriminating against deaf individuals. The lawsuit also seeks an order requiring Tennessee agencies to comply with the law by providing interpreters, technology or other assistance to the deaf individuals they serve.

(READ MORE: Federal oversight ends over how Tennessee cares for intellectually disabled)

Neither the Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities nor the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services responded to a request for comment on the allegations contained in the lawsuit.

American Sign Language is distinct from spoken English, with its own grammar and syntax - not merely a pantomime of spoken words. Deaf ASL users may also struggle to understand spoken English and often lack proficiency in written English, the lawsuit noted.

Without providing individuals the ability to communicate in their own language, "I'm just wondering how they think a deaf person would understand things," said James Calvert, a 62-year-old electrician and advocate for the deaf community. Calvert, who is also deaf, is unconnected to the lawsuit. "It's a very serious situation."

The state's lack of ASL interpreters for Battle and the other deaf people receiving state-funded services "has been devastating," the lawsuit said.

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"Without effective communication, [they] have lived in isolation for years, unable to socialize, express concerns or share how they are feeling," the lawsuit said. "They are lonely and frustrated. They cannot access [state] services that would allow them to improve their quality of life. They have lost language and/or are at severe risk for losing language. This denial of effective communication and resulting loss of language also impedes the provision of effective treatment services."