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Jax Daily Record Monday, Dec. 31, 200712:00 PM EST

Task force aims to open legal community's eyes to deaf issues

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by: Caroline Gabsewics

by Caroline Gabsewics

Staff Writer

Imagine you are an attorney and you are in court representing a person who is deaf and a judge says, “Can’t we just yell a little louder?”

Attorney Hugh Cotney heard that response over 30 years ago when he told a judge the person he was representing was deaf.

“The accessibility the deaf and hard-of-hearing have to the legal system has really evolved over the past 30 years, but there is still a lot of work to do,” said Cotney. “We want to help increase the access of the legal system to the deaf community.”

To help improve the accessibility of the legal system to the deaf and hard-of-hearing population, Sharon Caserta of Jacksonville Area Legal Aid and Lisa Shaefermeyer of the Florida Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf, are co-chairing the newly formed statewide Legal System Accessibility Task Force (LSATF). The task force is headquarted in Jacksonville and will meet four times a year.

The task force is comprised of members of law enforcement, the State Court System, Guardian Ad Litem, the Public Defender’s Office, Department of Corrections, 911 Operations, Jacksonville Area Legal Aid, The Florida Department of Children and Families, the Attorney General’s Office, the Florida Bar and the deaf-blind community.

Caserta asked Cotney to work on the task force as a representative of the Florida Bar.

Hugh Cotney’s experience

Cotney, who has been representing the deaf and hard-of-hearing for over 30 years in Jacksonville, said there was a lot of hesitation years ago to bring an interpreter into the courtroom.

When Cotney began representing deaf clients in the 1970s, he said judges didn’t want to pay for an interpreter or have one in their courtroom because they thought it was distracting.

“One judge came up out of his chair and yelled at my client,” said Cotney. “I said, ‘Judge, he is not going to get his hearing back.’”

Another judge didn’t want an interpreter in his courtroom because the judge said it would distract the jury and the jury doesn’t want to see hand motions, said Cotney.

Since then a lot has changed. There are now certified legal interpreters and judges know that if an interpreter is needed, they need to pay for one. Caserta said a certified legal interpreter can run $40-$65 an hour.

The main problem today is that attorneys don’t realize that according to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the deaf and hard-of-hearing are entitled to an interpreter when needed for effective communication.

“Many lawyers don’t understand that there is a difference in a certified legal interpreter and a family member who knows sign language, because the family member doesn’t know the legal terms,” said Cotney. “And they may want it to ‘sound better’ to their family member.”

In this circuit, Cotney said Chief Judge Donald Moran has been a pioneer in making the legal system accessible to the deaf.

Cotney said about 15 years ago he would get phone calls from attorneys representing a deaf client asking him what to do.

“I just told them you have to pay for an interpreter,” he said.

Judges have asked Cotney to be an interpreter in court, but he admits he doesn’t know American Sign Language well enough to interpret for someone. Cotney has taught himself the basics through a book he purchased.

Caserta’s background

Caserta presented the idea of starting this task force to the Florida Coordinating Council for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing.

Caserta said they did a trend analysis to try and pinpoint where the problem areas are and they found that the deaf and hard-of-hearing are not getting equal access to the legal system.

Before Caserta became an attorney she was a certified court interpreter in Boston. She moved to Florida where she received her Juris Doctorate degree from Florida Coastal School of Law. Her interest in the deaf and hard-of-hearing came after she baby sat children who were deaf when she was younger.

Caserta is currently representing St. Augustine resident Melisa Johnson, who is deaf, and communicates with Caserta through a videophone. People who are deaf or hard-of-hearing can fill out an application to receive a videophone through the Federal Communications Commission.

Caserta recently called her client on the videophone to talk to her about the case she is working on. Johnson first spoke about her experience with the videophone.

“I love the videophone,” said Johnson who signed her answer to Caserta. “It is so much easier to use. It is a wonderful piece of technology for the deaf to use to communicate.”

Through Caserta and Johnson’s conversation, Caserta explained her client’s case.

Johnson has been a customer of Taco Bell and one afternoon she and her family wanted to grab a quick bite to eat and drove up to the drive-through window.

The woman at the drive-through window denied Johnson and her family service.

“They waited ten to fifteen minutes to place their order,” said Caserta. “After the woman continued arguing with them, Johnson and her family decided to leave and go to Wendy’s drive-through and they provided them with service.

“Melisa said she hopes something positive will come from it.”

Caserta explained they can’t use the food kiosk to order, because people can only talk into it. To place an order, Johnson drives to the window and gives a written note with the order on it to the employee of the restaurant. Caserta said in this case they would not take their order through the window and they were told they had to go inside.

“We hope to have a good result from the case,” said Caserta. “We hope this helps force the issue that kiosks should be modified to not only assist the deaf and blind, but also those who are elderly or don’t speak English.”

Caserta is hoping that maybe after the law suit, kiosks will add a touch screen with symbols or pictures.

Getting the word out

One of the main purposes of the task force is to educate attorneys about Title III of the ADA which states that an attorney is required to provide a qualified interpreter if needed for effective communication.

Although Cotney does know basic sign language, he says he uses interpreters.

“We want people to know that they have to comply (with the law),” he said. “I do. I get an interpreter.”

Cotney and Caserta are planning to work with the Florida Bar to find ways to get this information out to Florida’s attorneys. But before they do this, Caserta said they are going to bring in all of the stake holders who are involved in the task force to talk about the areas of improvement.

“We are hoping to be able to modify and add to the Florida Bar’s Web page,” Caserta said about educating Florida’s attorneys on representing a client who is deaf or hard-of-hearing. “We want quick access for the attorneys so if an attorney receives a call from a client who is deaf, they can go right to the Florida Bar’s Web site and see what they need to do next.

“We just want to bring this to a larger scale and educate people about what they need to do.”

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