Disabled New Yorkers Fight to Text 911

BROOKLYN, N.Y. (CN) – New York City’s failure to implement texting access for emergency 911 services inspired a federal complaint Tuesday by a disability-rights group.

Disability Rights New York filed the suit in Brooklyn on behalf of two New Yorkers who are unable to communicate by telephone.

The group’s first client Nicholas Dupree underwent a tracheotomy and is on a ventilator. This past April when Dupree “experienced several health emergencies in or around April 2016,” the complaint says he had to have other individuals call 911.

Similarly, co-plaintiff Deborah LeGerfo attempted to report a car fire while traveling on Route 135 North in Plainview, N.Y.

A resident of Farmingdale with partial deafness, LeGerfo was unable to communicate crucial information to the 911 operator because of her disability.

The complaint notes that both plaintiffs communicate primarily via text message as well as other mediums. Dupree can also use eye-tracking software, while LoGerfo reads lips, written notes, emails and closed captioning.

Saying that the city needs a text-to-911 service, the complaint describes several situations where such functionality would come in hand for individuals with disabilities, such as if they experience an emergency away from home, if they witness a crime, or if they detect a gas leak.

“As a result, individuals with disabilities who cannot contact 911 may suffer property loss, severe injury, or death,” the complaint states.

Dupree and LoGerfo allege violations of the Americans With Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act.

They are represented by Elizabeth Grossman with Disability Right New York.

Representatives for the city have not returned a request for comment. Other defendants to the lawsuit include the Mayor Bill De Blasio, the New York Police Department and its Commissioner James O’Neill, Nassau County, the Nassau County Office of Emergency Management, Suffolk County and the Suffolk County Office of Emergency Management.

The complaint seeks an order the city to implement text-to-911 services and to train employees on disability rights, among other demanded relief.

The ADA requires that all Public Safety Answering Points (PSAPs) provide direct and equal access to their services for people with disabilities who use teletypewriters (TTYs).

ADA guidelines define “direct access” as meaning that Public Safety Answering Points must directly receive TTY calls without relying on an outside relay service or third-party services.

“Equal access” under the ADA means that the telephone emergency services provided for teletypewriters users must be as effective as those provided for people who make voice calls, equal in terms of response time, response quality and hours of operation.

The ADA Best Practices Toolkit for State and Local Governments describes a history of emergency dispatchers hanging up on TTY calls due to the initial silence of the calls.

“Historically, many people who used TTYs have not had confidence in the accessibility of emergency communications services,” the toolkit says. “Silent, open lines have commonly been treated as hangups even though silence may indicate there is a TTY caller on the line. The number of TTY calls each PSAP receives may increase over time because the ADA is making 9-1-1 and other emergency services more accessible to people who use TTYs.”

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