Two hearing-impaired District women have filed suit against the DC Housing Authority alleging the agency repeatedly denied them access to sign language interpreters, in violation of federal law.
Both Jacqueline Young of Southeast and Latheda Wilson of Northwest rent apartments using rental assistance vouchers issued by the housing agency.
They allege in their complaint that the housing authority failed to provide them them interpreters they needed to obtain information about how to use the vouchers, preventing them from getting the accommodations necessary for their living situations.
In the complaint, Young said she was forced to sit through an instructional program without an interpreter or any way of understanding what was being said, while Wilson said she was denied the opportunity to attend that program at all. Both women say they worried they might be denied rental assistance because they didn’t know how to follow the rules.
They were also humiliated because they were forced to communicate with D.C. Housing Authority staff by scribbling notes and gesturing, or trying to have their children or other family members communicate for them, according to the complaint. Further, they said they were forced to sign forms that affected their housing choices without understanding their contents.
They said the lack of “reasonable accommodation” in providing services is in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Fair Housing Act.
The complaint adds that the Housing Authority has engaged in this kind of practice for years, promising interpreters but not actually providing them, or cancelling appointments because the women could not communicate.
In an interview, Megan Cacace, the attorney representing the women said her clients were “being treated like children, and they’re being humiliated.”
By failing to acommodate the womens’ needs, Cacace concluded, the housing authority is “sending them the message that they don’t matter; they do, and their rights are equally important.”
Michelle Rovins, a director at Family Health International and an expert in deaf policy agreed that a failure to provide interpreters violates the law. But she also noted that people in need of interpreters need to make the request in advance, allowing a reasonable amount of time for the agency to provide them.
Chinh Le, attorney with the Legal Aid Society of DC, which filed as co-counsel on the complaint with Cacace, offered a prescription similar to Rovins’ : “If I were them I would examine my policies and make sure the policies are followed, and try to resolve them as quickly as possible.”
DC Housing Authority spokesman Richard White said in an e-mail that the Agency does not comment on pending litigation, though he emphasized that DCHA “takes its obligations under the Americans with Disabilities Act very seriously.” White noted that the Authority has “policies and procedures in place to accommodate the needs of the disabled in all (its) operations”, and will investigate the claims made in the complaint.