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California agrees to improve services for deaf people in state care

The California Department of Developmental Services has agreed to improve the care it provides to deaf people with intellectual and developmental disabilities as part of a new legal settlement in federal court, according to court filings.

The settlement is the result of a 2020 lawsuit in which deaf clients, their guardians and statewide disability rights organizations alleged that thousands of deaf people who attend the department’s day programs or live in its housing were being “systematically denied interpreters and other aids and services that are necessary for effective communication,” among other injustices.

“They are isolated from social interaction and denied the opportunity to develop important life skills,” the lawsuit alleged.

The lawsuit sought relief not just for the named plaintiffs, but also for an entire class of deaf clients who it alleged were being discriminated against within the state system.

State officials entered into negotiations with the plaintiffs to resolve their concerns without going through a lengthy trial.

The parties notified the court of the proposed settlement at the end of March, and U.S. District Judge Susan Illston granted preliminary approval of the settlement on April 28. It still needs final approval.

Under the agreement, the department will assess the communication needs of deaf clients at 21 regional centers it operates in the state, offer specialized training around those needs to center staff and other service providers, and increase collaboration with experts and other local agencies providing services to deaf people.

The state will hire a statewide deaf services specialist and provide funding to all 21 regional centers to hire their own deaf services specialists. It will also work on a “housemate matching system” that will give deaf clients more options for living together or with others with whom they can communicate.

The state will create a webpage with information on its services for deaf clients and notify all of its regional centers of their obligations under federal law not to discriminate against deaf clients, including by ensuring the centers have all the necessary services in place to communicate with them.

The settlement also anticipates the state paying $1.3 million to cover the plaintiffs’ legal fees.

Department officials did not respond to a request for comment on the settlement Tuesday.

Meredith Weaver, senior staff attorney with Disability Rights Advocates, said her organization and the other plaintiffs were “really pleased” with the settlement.

“It’s a robust package of changes, and to get those at the state level — so that it really impacts the system for all class members — is outstanding,” Weaver said. “The state has made some really strong commitments here to hear the voices of class members and of the deaf community, and also to make changes starting pretty much immediately.”

The advocacy groups have until the end of June to notify an estimated 10,000 class members of the settlement, and class members have until the middle of August to object, Weaver said.

The parties will seek final approval of the settlement at a hearing scheduled for Sept. 15, she said.

This story originally appeared on LA Times

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