(CN) – Georgia is discriminating against deaf people with developmental disabilities by denying them access to public mental health services tailored to the deaf, a federal judge ruled.
Renita Belton and Matthew Erickson, two deaf adults with severe mental and developmental disorders, sued the state on behalf of all Georgians in need of mental health care who cannot benefit from state-funded services due to the lack of accommodations for the deaf. Both plaintiffs claimed that they had been unable to find deaf-appropriate group home care, and had no choice but to live at home with their families, who could communicate with them in American Sign Language.
Belton, who required 24-hour “awake care” for her depression, due to the risk of harming herself or others, claimed she had been denied access to state-funded group home care, though she qualified to receive care in a community setting. Belton argued that her mother had contacted Medicaid-eligible group home providers, but they had turned her away, explaining they were not equipped to care for a deaf person in a group setting and lacked ASL-proficient staff.
Being unable to find a deaf-appropriate group home provider, Belton’s mother bought a home with her own money and equipped it to accommodate her daughter’s disability, according to Belton’s motion for summary judgment. And though the state found a provider to operate Belton’s home, Belton could only benefit from individual care in her home, and was excluded from group home care.
Erickson, whose struggle to find state-provided group home care was similar to Belton’s, also claimed he had been unable to find a group care provider with ASL-proficient staff.
Belton and Erickson argued that their equal access to state-funded mental health services was thwarted by Georgia’s institutional failures, including: the state’s shortage of ASL-fluent mental health practitioners; the state’s failure to reimburse medical providers for interpreting services; its failure to provide deaf-appropriate group home care settings; and its refusal to fund deaf-appropriate mental health services.
The state admitted it had a “severe shortage” of ASL-proficient health care providers, due to a lack of resources and institutional infrastructure, and that it relied primarily on interpreters to intermediate between deaf patients and hearing practitioners. It also acknowledged that interpreters are an inadequate substitute for ASL-fluent practitioners.
But Georgia rejected the claim that it failed to reimburse providers for interpreter expenses, noting that providers receive an extra 5 percent payment into their agreement with the state, which can be used to cover interpreting services.
The state also countered that the Americans with Disabilities Act did not require it to use ASL-proficient practitioners in delivering mental health care to deaf patients.
But in a recent ruling, U.S. District Judge Richard Story found that Georgia had violated the Americans with Disabilities Act by denying deaf Georgians access to group home living, a state-funded health care service.
Story rejected the state’s argument that deaf individuals had access to “the same” services as hearing consumers, noting that disabled Georgians had an “unequal ability to realize the benefit of those services.”
Belton and Erickson were denied access to group home living due to the state’s failure to accommodate deaf consumers and provide ASL-proficient staff, according to the 42-page ruling.
“Absent the ability to communicate with others, the evidence shows that neither Belton nor Erickson would be able to realize the therapeutic benefit of group home living,” Story wrote. “Thus, the named plaintiffs have proven that, because of their deafness, they have been denied meaningful access to a mental health care service provided by the state to the general public.”
Though group home living is therapeutically ideal for deaf patients suffering from mental and developmental disabilities, the state’s group homes are not equipped to accommodate deaf consumers’ communication needs, according to the ruling.
Story agreed that the state’s shortage of ASL-proficient clinical workers is a barrier to deaf consumers receiving adequate mental health care, given the importance of accurate communication between patient and practitioner.
He also rejected Georgia’s argument that the ADA did not require it to provide ASL-fluent practitioners, finding that the state had “failed to rebut plaintiffs’ showing that communication between deaf patients and hearing practitioners, aided by interpreters, is not equal to communication between hearing patients and hearing practitioners.”
Belton and Erickson had proven that the state’s failure to reimburse health care providers for interpreting services, a “necessary ingredient of the state’s provision of mental health care services to deaf consumers,” discouraged practitioners from serving deaf patients, according to the ruling.
Story noted that the extra 5 percent payment from the state looked “more like a profit margin” than an effort to reimburse providers for interpreter services.
He declined to rule on the funding issue, noting that, since the state had failed to provide deaf people with equal access to its services, the level of funding was not material.