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Inaccessible Highway Call Boxes Prompt Suit by Deaf

CONCORD, CA, APRIL 15 2005-- Victoria Munoz and Daniel Arellanes were traveling along Highway 242 in Concord, California when a car wheel came careening off the median barrier. It smashed into their car.

Injured, they looked for help. But Munoz and Arellanes are both Deaf.

Munoz says he tried unsuccessfully to flag down a motorist, then went to a nearby emergency call box. Of course it has no TTY.

Not having any choice, he tried simply screaming into the handset "as he does not have intelligible speech," said the attorney handling the suit that he, Munoz and the California Association of the Deaf filed yesterday against the state for failing to equip emergency boxes with TTYs for Deaf motorists to use.

Arellanes "could not tell if any dispatcher had heard his screaming or whether help was on the way. After an hour, a California Highway Patrol officer arrived." Arellanes doesn't know whether the officer came as a result of his unintelligible screaming into the call box, or whether the officer was merely passing by.

"Because the California Highway Patrol did not know ahead of time that Ms. Munoz needed an ambulance, she was forced to wait even longer before an ambulance arrived. Ms. Munoz and Mr. Arellanes were stranded on the highway for almost two hours, as night fell, while Ms. Munoz's injuries went untreated, and she was suffering pain and serious risk to her health."

The lawsuit, a class action, was filed yesterday in federal court in San Francisco against state and local agencies across California "to compel them to make emergency roadside call boxes accessible to deaf and hard of hearing motorists."

The defendants named in the class action are the the California Highway Patrol, the California Department of Transportation and nine local Service Authorities for Freeway Emergencies. Throughout the state, these SAFEs maintain more than 16,000 roadside call boxes. which are answered by dispatchers of the California Highway Patrol or private contractors on public rights-of-way controlled by the Department of Transportation.

Inaccessible call boxes "prevent deaf and hard of hearing motorists from obtaining emergency services, leaving them stranded on the highways, in dangerous situations and unable to inform dispatchers about the nature and urgency of the emergency and whether an ambulance, a police officer, a tow truck or other help is needed," said Donald Rosenkjar, president of the California Association of the Deaf. "Two-way communication is critical -- so the motorist can be informed what help is on the way, answer any questions the dispatcher may have, and be able to update the dispatcher on the situation."

The suit claims violations of both state and federal anti-discrimination laws, including the federal Americans with Disabilities Act's Title II, the federal Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and California Government Code section 11135, all of which prohibit discrimination against persons with disabilities in government sponsored or financed public programs and services, "by effectively denying deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals full and equal access to California highways and roads because the call boxes are not equipped with non-voice operated, text telecommunications devices that would enable deaf motorists to effectively seek medical, police or roadside assistance."

Call boxes accessible to the deaf have been available for a number of years, says the suit, and have been installed by in highways in Los Angeles, Orange and Ventura Counties -- but not in Contra Costa county, where the accident occurred.

Legal groups handling the suit include the California Center for Law and the Deaf and the Western Law Center for Disability Rights.

Posted April 15, 2005.

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