City looks at dealing with hearing-impaired

Statesville officials are looking into enhancing employee training for dealing with the hearing-impaired.

The move follows emotional public comments from the mother of a hearing-impaired Statesville resident, who said the city was not complying with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

At City Council meetings this spring, Summer Lipford took issue with the way police handled her son, Michael Godbey, during a recent arrest.

"If a Mexican is arrested, a Spanish interpreter is called in immediately," she said. "But what about those who cannot hear? When my son was arrested, no one had any idea of how to contact a deaf interpreter. Do not treat these people as second-class citizens."

City officials initially defended their handling of people with physical impairments. Last week, however, Lynne Smith, Statesville's ADA coordinator, told the Observer that "based on Ms. Lipford's concerns for the hearing-impaired community, we are looking at some specific policies and practices for the hearing-impaired, particularly in our police department."

Smith said Statesville's previous ADA training has not been specific to any particular disability. Instead it teaches that anyone with a disability may be eligible for a reasonable accommodation specific to their individual situation, and that each situation may require a different response.

Justice Department spokesman Alejandro Mijar said nearly 10 percent of the U.S. population has some hearing loss, and by law "people who are deaf or hard of hearing are entitled to the same services law enforcement provides to anyone else."

The ADA Guide for Law Enforcement Agencies lists more than 15 specific suggestions for communicating with the hearing-impaired. Among them: face the person, speak slowly and use visual aids wherever possible.

The guide also states that while an interpreter may not be needed for routine or simple events, "an interpreter may be needed in lengthy or complex transactions - such as interviewing a victim, witness, suspect or arrestee - if the person being interviewed normally relies on sign language or speech reading to understand what others are saying."

When her son was arrested on the property of a local car dealer, Lipford said, city police could not find an interpreter, and county officials indicated it was not their responsibility.

The city's ADA policy, which will remain in effect, says "our staff will give consideration to a reasonable request for accommodations for a specific service.... The request must be made at least 48 hours in advance." All requests for such services should be directed to Lynn Smyth, Statesville ADA coordinator, at 704-878-3588.