SAN FRANCISCO — Deaf and hard-of-hearing state employees in California are regularly denied sign language interpreters for meetings and have been left behind during emergency evacuations because of a failure to accommodate their disability, according to a lawsuit filed Friday.
“Our investigation reveals a systemic breakdown,” said Joshua Konecky, a lawyer for the plaintiffs. “Deaf employees describe a haphazard and patchwork environment for requesting and securing accommodations, if they get them at all.”
The problems have resulted in workplace “isolation, exclusion, prejudice and overall pervasive discrimination,” the suit says.
The lawsuit filed in San Francisco Superior Court cites problems at the Department of Rehabilitation, Department of Justice, California Public Employees Retirement System and Department of Social Services.
It seeks class action status and includes seven named plaintiffs, including a woman who works in the Office of Deaf Access for the Department of Social Services.
There are about 1,500 state workers who are deaf or hard-of-hearing.
Rachel Arrezola, a spokeswoman for Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a defendant in the case, said the state is committed to accommodating disabled employees to ensure they are able to fulfill their job responsibilities.
“We are always looking for ways to improve access and the Department of Rehabilitation will continue to work with these individuals and their representatives, and we are hopeful this will be resolved soon,” Arrezola said.
Evan Westrup, a spokesman for Attorney General Jerry Brown, said his office was reviewing the lawsuit and could not immediately comment.
The lawsuit alleges the state has violated the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.
It claims deaf employees are often denied sign language interpreters for work-related events, including staff meetings, job training, performance reviews and meetings with the public and clients.
It also says the state frequently substitutes insufficient or ineffective forms of communication – lip reading, e-mail, videophones and interpretations by co-workers unskilled in sign language – rather than provide qualified interpreters.
The state often fails to caption videos shown to employees and cites budget limitations as a reason for denying interpreter requests, the lawsuit states.
“On paper, the state recognizes the need for sign language interpreters and other forms of reasonable accommodations, but in practice, the state has no reliable systems in place to ensure that its deaf employees have effective communication with their clients, co-workers and management,” said Laurence Paradis, executive director of Disability Rights Advocates and a lawyer for the plaintiffs.
The lawsuit seeks improvements to state procedures and attorney fees.
Paradis said inadequate emergency procedures are the most disturbing example of the state’s failure to accommodate deaf employees.
“We have had numerous reports of employees being left behind in buildings during evacuation drills and actual emergencies,” he said.
State employee Melanie Thao Nguyen said her ability to serve the deaf community is hampered by the state’s failure to provide her with sufficient interpreters in her position as associate governmental program analyst at the Office of Deaf Access.
The lawsuit claims the interpreting position at her workplace has been vacant for more than three years, and no one is due to be hired because funds had dried up