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Lakeland Woman Pushes Social Security Office to Accomodate the Deaf
Lakeland Woman Pushes Social Security Office to Accomodate the Deaf | TheLedger.com
Debbie Lauricella is stone deaf. Because of that, she says she suffered numerous slights at Lakeland's Social Security office but took them in stride, albeit reluctantly, until one day she was pushed too far.
"I just had enough," she said.
Because she got angry and determined that day in 2009, the way Lakeland's Social Security Administration office accommodates the deaf has been upgraded. If the improvements don't stick, the administration could have some explaining to do to a federal judge.
And because Lauricella was put together with a group of deaf people from North Florida, other offices in the state are also under orders to do a better job.
The improvements come as the settlement of a complaint filed with the federal Office for Civil Rights in Atlanta by Jacksonville Area Legal Aid lawyer Sharon Caserta. There were five similar complainants, all from Jacksonville or St. Augustine.
The Ledger interviewed Lauricella, 50, recently. She spoke American Sign Language and was interpreted by certified signer April Perry.
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Lauricella has worked most of her adult life. She served as director of Central Florida Deaf Services for three years but was forced to leave in 2009 to care for her deaf mother, who suffers from dementia.
That's when she applied for Social Security disability benefits, which now pay her $1,018 per month.
She said she's searching for work now that her mother's situation has stabilized and would love to find a job helping the deaf, her usual occupation.
Lauricella said she has watched foreign language customers at the Social Security office get better service than the deaf. She said she tolerated some sign interpreters who were more concerned with their pay than providing service.
Lauricella said she made appointments with the Social Security office days or weeks in advance so workers could arrange for an interpreter, which they are required by law to do, only to show up and sometimes find no interpreter had been scheduled.
That's what happened the day she blew a gasket.
Lauricella said she received correspondence from the Social Security Administration that required her to make an appointment and to do it before a quick deadline or her benefits could be in jeopardy.
She corresponds mostly by email and made an appointment that she said included her standard request for an interpreter.
But when she got there, she said there was no interpreter — and this time it mattered most. She exchanged notes with a worker, which she saved, and the worker wrote that she thought Lauricella would bring her own interpreter or her husband.
She had never brought an interpreter before, and Frank Lauricella is deaf and would have been useless to her in communicating at the office.
Lauricella said she was told an interpreter probably couldn't be found that day, and the appointment would likely have to be postponed for a week of two.
Seething, she got on her cell phone and texted an interpreter, who was able to arrive the same day.
Lauricella was acquainted with Caserta, the Jacksonville lawyer. "One thing led to another," Lauricella said, and she was soon listed as a civil rights complainant along with the five people from Northeast Florida, all of whom had stories similar to Lauricella's.
Caserta, an advocate for the deaf and who signs, said she couldn't file a complaint or court action using the Americans with Disabilities Act, because it excludes federal offices.
She said she filed her complaint with the Office of Civil Rights under Section 504 of the federal Rehabilitation Act, which was passed in 1973. It requires equal opportunity and access for disabled people.
The complaint was resolved in a settlement with the Social Security Administration offices in Lakleland, Jacksonville and St. Augustine, obligating them to better serve the deaf.
Other Social Security offices in Florida are not part of the settlement, but, as Caserta said, every Social Security office has had almost 40 years to adhere to Section 504.
Among other settlement requirements, the administration has agreed to provide a variety of means of communication with the deaf, including the most popular preference of a qualified sign interpreter. If a signer can't be found, a sign interpreter on video remote is one of the other options.
The settlement also requires the Social Security Administration to provide substantial training to workers in Lakeland, Jacksonville and St. Augustine in how to serve the deaf. It allows Caserta's office to monitor the progress of the offices for two years in the three cities.
If there's a problem, Caserta said, her office will bring it to the attention of administration officials, and if the problem persists, the next step is federal court.
A Social Security Administration lawyer in Atlanta who worked on the settlement forwarded a Ledger request for comment to a spokeswoman. The spokeswoman said she would check into the situation and call back, but she did not.
Caserta said problems with the deaf at Social Security offices aren't limited to Lakeland and the other two cities in the settlement.
"This kind of discrimination is all over Florida and the U.S.," she said. "It's worse in Florida," and there's no reason the state can't do better. She said she hopes other complaints will be filed elsewhere, "now that there's a template" for how to do it.
She also said there has been increasing interest in filing a class-action suit on behalf of thousands of deaf people near and far for equal access to and treatment by the system.
Lauricella said she believes the Lakeland office will do better. "I know they should have done this before and I'm praying they do it now," she said.
"Walking with a friend in the dark is better than walking alone in the light."
- Helen Keller