National Council on Disability Document Archive

TDD access to 911 -- TDD911.TXT

Posted by: Jamal Mazrui
Date Mailed: Monday, July 21st 1997 01:12 PM

07/18/97 -- Copyright (C) 1997 The Washington Post [Article 289070, 66 lines]

                       911 System Under Fire In District
                   Takeover Threatened Over Services to Deaf
                                By Bill Miller
                         Washington Post Staff Writer
     A federal judge ordered the District yesterday to make its emergency 911
telephone system more accessible to the deaf, threatening to strip control of
the operation from the city unless improvements are made quickly.
     U.S. District Judge Stanley Sporkin expressed exasperation at the
District's failure to respond to repeated complaints from the deaf and
hard-of-hearing about their difficulties getting through on 911 calls.
     "It's time enough people should have these services," Sporkin told the
District's lawyers during a hearing. "It may well be needed that this be
placed in receivership."
     The judge's remarks came in response to a lawsuit filed by two deaf
people who said they could not get through to 911 emergency dispatchers by way
of "telecommunications devices for the deaf," or TDDs, which allow typewritten
conversations over telephone lines.
     The Justice Department has joined in the litigation as part of a push by
Attorney General Janet Reno to enforce laws against discrimination. 
      "I was very scared because one of my clients was in serious condition,"
said Sean Owens, 29, who works for a group home for deaf people with mental
illness in Northeast Washington and could not get through on 911 last August
when a resident became unconscious. "I tried to reach 911 twice, waiting for
about five to 10 minutes. It's a life or death matter, and I think it is
important that it works properly." 
     Assistant Corporation Counsel Arabella W. Teal said in court that the
District is trying to correct the problem. But her assurances did not appease
Sporkin, who set another hearing for Wednesday to explore the progress.
     "There are going to be sanctions if I find somebody is trying to spin
this court," he told Teal. "There will be severe sanctions."
     Teal would not comment as she left the courtroom.
     The Justice Department has won promises from officials in nearly a dozen
cities to bring 911 systems into compliance with the Americans With
Disabilities Act. It has sued only one city, the District, because of
longstanding problems with the system.
     "Persons who use TDDs are in the intolerable, life-threatening position
of being unable to access police, fire department and ambulance services if an
emergency occurs," federal lawyers wrote Sporkin, asking him to issue an order
requiring immediate action.
      TDDs enable people to communicate by typing and reading messages. Both
the caller and the person being called must have the devices.
      The District's computer-enhanced 911 system, installed in 1994, was
equipped to accommodate TDDs. But an outside expert appointed by the court
found last month that the equipment was not properly designed, so 911 workers
are not always aware that callers are using the devices.
     As a result, 911 operators hang up, thinking no one is on the line.
That's what happened to Owens.
     In another incident, Deborah E. Miller, a deaf Northeast Washington woman
was attacked and robbed in June 1996 while waiting for a bus. She tried for
more than 30 minutes to get a response from 911 operators, failing each time,
according to court documents.
     Miller finally turned to a relay service, using a communications
assistant equipped with a TDD to speak with a 911 operator on her behalf.
      "Some of the calls go through after a long delay, and others don't get
through at all," said E. Elaine Gardner, an attorney for Owens and Miller, who
filed the suit.
        The Justice Department said it found that the District's 911 operators
were not properly trained or supervised in handling TDD calls and that no
system was in place to keep track of complaints or act on them.
     Gallaudet University, for example, tested the system last year and
repeatedly reported problems. 
      The District recently put separate TDDs at the stations of all 911
dispatchers as a stop-gap measure, but complaints have continued. Sporkin
issued a temporary restraining order yesterday compelling the city to get the
system working and to more closely train and supervise operators.

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