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July 19, 2004

Court Accommodates Deaf Visitors

From: The Ledger, FL - Jul 19, 2004

By Jeff Scullin
The Ledger

BARTOW -- An unlikely factor delayed Thomas Woodel's sentencing hearing in his first-degree murder case last week: His father is deaf and the court couldn't provide a sign language interpreter for him. The hearing recessed until the following morning, when two interpreters were at the ready.

The Americans with Disabilities Act, which Congress passed in 1990, requires courthouses and other government and private institutions to provide equal access to disabled people. A common implication of the law is the need to provide elevators, ramps and reserved seating for people in wheelchairs.

In the case of deaf people, the law requires the government and many private businesses to provide a sign language interpreter or other means of communication at no cost to the person requesting accommodation.

Nick Sudzina, court administrator for the 10th Judicial Circuit, which includes Polk County, said all a person requesting an accommodation is required to do is provide reasonable notice. If the cost or logistics of an accommodation is not prohibitive, the court is required to provide it, Sudzina said.

Usually, court officials prefer more than 24 hours' notice to contract with a freelance sign language interpreter, Sudzina said.

"But if someone came in this afternoon and we were able to provide one instantaneously, we would do that," he said.

For most of his son's trial, Albert Woodel sat in the audience, following the testimony and proceedings through the translations of Angela Roth, founder and chief executive of American Sign Language Services in Kissimmee, and another interpreter.

On Friday, the defense called Albert Woodel as a witness. Roth and an assistant, Marvin Mollinedo, worked as a two-person team, translating the lawyers' questions to Woodel and his answers back to lawyers.

The ADA doesn't require the court to provide two interpreters. But because interpreting is so labor-intensive, the court provides two interpreters for longer proceedings, such as trials, so they can spell one another, Sudzina said.

Roth's company provides interpreters in a variety of settings, including theme parks, conferences, corporate training sessions and cultural events. Working in the courts requires specialized training, such as knowledge of legal terminology, familiarity with the legal system and the roles played by various court officials, she said.

Interpreting in a legal setting presents other challenges, Roth said. In depositions, for example, there's a need for confidentiality. An interpreter also must be sensitive to the heightened emotions inherent in many court proceedings that can be even more intense for someone who's deaf.

For the most part, Florida does a good job providing access for deaf people in its courtrooms, Roth said. But she said she's surprised that people in the legal field sometimes don't understand the access issues faced by deaf people.

That unfamiliarity can prove intimidating for deaf people who may find themselves having to assert their rights with a judge or other officials in a courtroom setting.

"Many are hesitant to exercise their rights because they are tired of facing individuals who believe that civil rights are a nuisance rather than a basic American principle," Kelby Brick, the National Association of the Deaf's director of law and advocacy, said in an e-mail.

"People facing discrimination on a daily basis learn very quickly (what) their civil rights (are) and how they can prevent discrimination. Part of this learning process is learning that they can ask for interpreters."

In Polk County, all outgoing court notices let people know whom to call for special accommodations, Sudzina said. The majority of requests, which Sudzina said are infrequent, come from people who are hearing-impaired.

The court system contracts with freelance interpreters at an hourly rate. The cost is minimal, Sudzina said. The State Attorney's Office, Public Defender's Office and Clerk of Courts provide interpreters for their own proceedings, such as depositions.

Though the ADA does not require it, the court system provides other assistance to the disabled, such as wheelchairs and bailiffs or other court personnel to help people get around the courthouse, Sudzina said.

People who cannot speak or hear communicate with court officials through either a Telecommunications Device for the Deaf (TDD) or the Florida Relay Service, Sudzina said.

In the rare case that a deaf person who doesn't use sign language needs assistance, a court reporter can provide simultaneous transcription on a computer screen, Sudzina said.

Jeff Scullin can be reached at or 863-533-9079.

Copyright 2004 The Ledger