Abreham Zemedagegehu, a deaf man arrested on a complaint that he stole an iPad, is suing a Virginia sheriff’s department after he was thrown in jail for six weeks without being given accommodations for his disability, according to a lawsuit filed recently. Once incarcerated, Zemedagegehu said that he was not given an interpreter or other accommodations to communicate with his jailers until at least two days after his arrest, the Associated Press reported.
Zemedagegehu accepted a guilty plea deal six weeks after he was incarcerated in February 2014, but his public defender filed a motion stating that prosecutors didn’t turn over evidence that the iPad’s owner had actually found it. A judge didn’t overturn the conviction, “saying the appeal had been filed too late,” the AP noted. He was released in March 2014.
Zemedagegehu filed a lawsuit against the Arlington County, Virginia sheriff, stating that officers failed to treat him according to standards set by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The ADA clarifies that police departments must provide reasonable accommodations and that deaf individuals should set the preference for the type of accommodations.
“I felt like I was losing my mind,’’ he said to the AP through an interpreter. “I thought Virginia would give me an interpreter and they said no. That’s why I felt lost.’’
Zemedagegehu is a naturalized U.S. citizen from Ethiopia. He grew up using Ethiopian Sign Language, but as Jon Goodrich, a counsel in Akin Gump’s litigation practice in DC involved in the case, noted to ThinkProgress, “Abreham has limited English proficiency. Trying to communicate with him using written notes in English is like trying to communicate with a non-Spanish speaker using notes in Spanish.”
At the time of his arrest, Zemedagegehu said that he requested an ASL interpreter, but was instead taken to an Arlington jail for processing. During the booking process, an individual spoke with him on a video screen, but he couldn’t understand what was happening. After the police booked Zemedagegehu, the AP reported that “he underwent a medical screening, and says he was given forms to sign. He didn’t know what they were, and refused to sign them. He says they stuck a needle in his arm without explaining what was occurring — he later learned it was tuberculosis test, to which he suffered a bad reaction.”
The jail provided a Teletypewriter (TTY) device, “which is rarely used in the deaf community and which types out English text that Zemedagegehu doesn’t understand,” the Washington Post reported, though the sheriff’s office said that the jail’s TTY device is commonly used.
Although there are about one million “functionally deaf” individuals in the U.S., a 2012 Federal Communications Commission document found that there are only an estimated 100,000 TTY users. Users have abandoned TTY due to limited mobility, fewer people are using it, and because videophones have replaced it.
According to the advocacy group Helping Educate to Advance the Rights of the Deaf (HEARD), there are more than 10,000 deaf people in jails and prisons nationwide. HEARD’s fact sheet indicates that many deaf prisoners are placed in solitary confinement as a substitute for the provision of finding accommodations for them. But sometimes even sign language is banned because corrections professionals “incorrectly view sign language as a form of gang signs.” The group indicates that only seven prisons across the nation have videophones, leaving deaf prisoners in thousands of other prisons without a reliable way to communicate or with TTY devices that prove inadequate or ineffective for deaf prisoners who need to convey complex information with complicated or specialized vocabulary.
What’s more, Zemedagegehu’s encounter with the police is not an isolated traumatic situation. In one case, a deaf woman who had been arrested had to stay in jail overnight because the police couldn’t find her an interpreter. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) also documented many incidents of deaf individuals brutally assaulted by police officers, like Robert Kim who slipped into a diabetic episode, but was beaten by police and others because he failed to respond to verbal orders; Pearl Pearson whose shoulder was dislocated after police assaulted him for attemping to show a placard that read “I am deaf;” and Jonathan Meister who was mistaken for a burglar and was beaten after officers “determined that his attempts to use sign language were aggressive.”