Dept. of Public Welfare faces lawsuit

    An advocacy group for people with disabilities says the state of Pennsylvania has not accommodated the needs of people who have both a mental disability and a hearing loss.

    The Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare is facing a lawsuit for not providing staff who use American Sign Language at group homes for people with mental disabilities.

    Some people with mental disabilities live in community homes and receive government benefits. If they are also deaf, they are entitled — under the Americans with Disabilities Act — to be able to communicate with the house staff. That’s according to Rachel Mann, an attorney with the Disability Rights Network of Pennsylvania. She says the state rarely provides staff who also sign, leaving residents unable to communicate — and in some cases abuse and injuries have gone overlooked.

    Mann: Usually there might be somebody, staff, who might have learned the really basics so they can say when they need to use the toilet or need to eat. But they can’t have any kind of conversation. They can’t express their feelings, their fears, let somebody know if they’re in pain.

    Mann says a few hundred people in the state are in need of sign language services at group homes.

    Mann: There are programs – very few – but there are programs where the staff can all sign, oftentimes the staff are deaf, and that’s one model that we hope to expand greatly because it’s not available to most people in the system.

    Short of hiring staff who sign, Mann says the state could hire interpreters or use video phones to help deaf residents express themselves.

    The Department of Public Welfare says it will not comment on an ongoing lawsuit.

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