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April 4, 2004

Deaf man's arrest spurs call for interpreters

From: White Plains Journal News - White Plains,NY,USA - Apr 4, 2004


PEEKSKILL — Advocates for those with disabilities say the experience a deaf Peekskill man recently had with the criminal justice system highlights a common problem for people who are deaf or hard of hearing — a lack of interpreters.

"I can't fathom what it must be like for deaf people to deal with this on a daily basis," said Michael Hellman of the Westchester Independent Living Center, an advocacy organization for those with disabilities. "I often use a wheelchair. If every place I wanted to go had 35 steps to climb, I think that would be the equivalent of not having a sign-language interpreter."

Eddie Dariwala, who is 24 and deaf, was charged by Peekskill police with endangering the welfare of a child, a misdemeanor. But Dariwala's lawyer, Anthony J. Mamo Jr. of Sleepy Hollow, said the incident was a misunderstanding and that charges could have been avoided if his client had been able to better communicate with police.

Peekskill police did provide a sign-language interpreter for Dariwala, but Mamo and Dariwala's mother, Denise, said they weren't sure the interpreter was qualified.

"To my understanding, police provided someone who knew some sign language but was not a formal interpreter," Mamo said.

Hellman said, "We're not singling out Peekskill police. It goes beyond them. It's an issue for other institutions, including the courts. They didn't have an interpreter when Eddie first showed up in court."

Dariwala was walking home in February after taking a bus from his job in Yorktown when he saw a young girl crying. He approached the girl to see if he could help, bent down to look at her and placed his hand on her shoulder, Mamo said. Dariwala, who uses sign language, tried to communicate with his hands and voice, but can't tell how loud he speaks and has difficulty pronouncing words.

"She got scared because she couldn't understand him and thought he was reaching out to grab her," Mamo said. "But he thought she was frightened of something else and left."

One of the girl's friends called police to report an attempted abduction. The next day, as Dariwala was walking the same route home, police stopped him and asked if he had spoken to a girl the day before. Mamo said that Dariwala answered yes to the best of his ability, then was taken into custody. He spent the night in jail.

Dariwala's next court date is April 22. Mamo said he expected the charges to be dropped, and police now say there is no indication Dariwala meant to harm the girl. Denise Dariwala said she fears that people will get the wrong idea about her son.

"I taught him to help everyone," she said. "That's what he was doing that day."

The 1992 Americans with Disabilities Act includes provisions to ensure equal opportunity for people with disabilities in getting state and local government services.

"The problem is that a lot of the ADA doesn't get enforced," Hellman said. "It's not just local government, it's businesses, too. I'm hoping this incident can get people thinking about solutions."

Dawn Priore, who works with deaf clients at the Independent Living Center, said cost was one reason there wasn't widespread compliance with respect to the deaf.

"It can cost $90 to $150 for a minimum of two hours to get someone who is a qualified or certified interpreter," she said. "Doctors and hospitals are only getting reimbursed $35 to $70, but they're not aware they can write it off on their taxes or get a grant to cover the cost."

Roughly 28 million Americans have some form of hearing loss.

Priore said that in general, compliance with the ADA is good in New York City, but begins to wane in surrounding areas. For some institutions, it has taken lawsuits to force compliance.

In 1995, police in Rochester formalized a sign-language policy in an agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice. The policy, which ensures that interpreters are provided during arrests, investigations and interrogations, arose from a lawsuit filed by a deaf woman who tried to report an assault in 1992 but couldn't because there was no interpreter.

Recently, Mercer County, N.J., paid $175,000 to a deaf man who was held at a county jail for five days in 1994 and appeared in court without an interpreter. The agreement, worked out with the National Association of the Deaf, also resulted in the county's agreeing to provide interpreters and other services for deaf people.

"These cases cost police departments hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees, where a little bit of education can avoid all that," said Officer Randy Melton, a 30-year member of the Houston Police Department and its liaison to the deaf and hard-of-hearing community.

For years, Melton has visited police departments throughout the country to present a program called, "Bridging the Gap Between Law Enforcement and the Deaf/Hard of Hearing." He also makes a presentation to the deaf on their rights under the ADA.

Houston was among the first police departments in the country to offer sign-language classes to its officers.

"We came up with the idea after realizing that the needs of our deaf and hard-of-hearing community were not being met," said John Leggio, a department spokesman. "We're very proud of it."

George Gaska, a 73-year-old Peekskill resident who is deaf, said that while he was sad to hear of his friend Dariwala's situation, he wasn't surprised.

"Look at how poor services are so many years after the ADA was signed into law. It's sad," Gaska said through Mary Darragh MacLean, an interpreter who appeared in court with Dariwala. "I just try to tell people like Eddie about the ADA and their rights."

Faced with dealing with a deaf person, state police would attempt to get an interpreter, either in-house or from an outside agency, said Sgt. Neely Jennings, a state police spokeswoman.

"We would also attempt to use written communication," she said.

Yorktown police Lt. Anthony Masi said his department does several things to comply with the ADA, including providing a TTY telephone, also known as a TDD or telecommunications device for the deaf.

"Our first step in dealing with a person who is hard of hearing or deaf is to call the county police for an interpreter," Masi said. "Our next step would be to call the state police, and our final call would be made to the New York School for the Deaf in Greenburgh."

In Peekskill, Police Chief Eugene Tumolo said his department now has a system in place for the next time officers deal with a person who is deaf or hard of hearing.

"We have people we can call immediately," Tumolo said. "We did get someone that day. Now we have other people as a resource."

Copyright 2004 The Journal News, a Gannett Co. Inc. newspaper serving Westchester, Rockland and Putnam Counties in New York.