News9th April 2015

Deaf man's discrimination case against judiciary to continue to jury trial

Stevel Prakel is seeking reimbursement of interpreter costs and damages

by Sarah Lawrence

There can be little dispute that Deaf rights and accessibility vary widely around the globe. Treatment that is seen as being poor here in the UK, might be seen as a significant improvement on the experiences Deaf people face in other parts of the world. Similarly, the situation in America is often better than most other places and a current case about the right to an interpreter during court proceedings is testament to that.

The case has just been sent for jury trial to determine if two judges and a magistrate have intentionally discriminated against a Deaf man, Steven Prakel from Lawrenceburg. In the UK, it seems highly unlikely that the same circumstances would merit any challenge of the judicial decision making at all, with far less rights available to the Deaf community than in the US.

In this case, Steven Prakel is the son of the defendant, Carolyn Prakel. He was not a witness in the case and in legal terms would not be considered a ‘party to the proceedings’. However, his mother wanted him at the different hearings both for moral support and so that he could understand what was happening to her.

Deaf and an American Sign Language user, Steven Prakel repeatedly asked the court in Dearborn, Indiana to provide him with an interpreter so that he could support his mother and follow what was going on. His requests were repeatedly turned down. That meant that in some of the hearings he could not follow or understand proceedings, in another, his mother paid for an interpreter herself.

Launching a legal challenge about the hearings that date back to 2010 and 2011, the Prakels are claiming damages based on a case that argues his rights were violated under Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act, standards that were introduced 20 years ago to give equality to disabled people in respect of access to public services.

The Prakels are seeking reimbursement for the interpreter expenses they incurred as well as attorneys fees and compensatory damages. In what could be considered a land mark case for Deaf and other disabled people who are not parties to the proceedings, the defence argued that the person facing the charges, Carolyn Prakel suffered “no cognizable injury as a result of her son’s failure to receive interpreter services” through the courts.

In effect, recognising the open gate potential for this case for other spectators of court cases, the defence also argued that the judges did not deem it necessary to hire an interpreter for Steven Prakel since he wasn’t a participant in the proceedings.

After waiting nearly a year for the ruling, the U.S. District Court Southern District of Indiana in New Albany released its judgment on the 30th March. It was not all a landslide victory for Steven Prakel in that some parts of his case were dismissed by federal Judge Sarah Evans Barker, but she did rule the judges had denied, “effective communication and the opportunity to enjoy the benefits of the state courts services, programs and activities”, in line with the requirements of the legislation. As the claim was for intentional discrimination, she ordered that that section of the case would need to be heard before a jury.

Matthew Lorch, a New Albany attorney represents the Prakels. He said the ruling is an important one in protecting the rights of the hearing impaired when it comes to court proceedings. “The court retracted the idea that only lawyers, witness, judges ... participants, would have interpreters, or the right to ask for them,” Lorch commented. “We never felt like that was the right interpretation, and ultimately, that’s what the court agreed.”

The three judges — Kimberly Schmaltz, James Humphrey and Jonathan Cleary — will now face a jury trial later this year to determine if they intentionally discriminated against the plaintiff, Steven Prakel, when they refused to provide him with a sign-language interpreter.

The Prakels are seeking reimbursement for the interpreter expenses they incurred as well as attorneys fees and compensatory damages.

It is inconceivable that a relative in a case like this in the UK would have any hope that the courts would pick up the cost of an interpreter if they used one to keep track of the case. This case in America shows how far policy makers have travelled in America to equalise service provision and accessibility to Deaf and disabled people. On the eve of elections and with significant barriers faced by Deaf people in the UK, we hope politicians here recognise how discriminatory the UK can be in comparison to other modern cultures.

Article by Sarah Lawrence

posted in Community / News

9th April 2015