Deaf Kansans struggle getting legal help. The state is trying to change that

The Communication Access Fund has $10,000 to help hire interpreters and other communication services to help the deaf and hard of hearing speak with their lawyers. But not many attorneys know about the fund.

by Blaise Mesa

Takeaways:

  • Deaf and hard of hearing Kansans may not meet with lawyers because of the communication barrier
  • There is a fund to fix this problem, but it isn’t being used enough
  • Not enough lawyers know how to request an interpreter

A deaf Kansas woman going through a divorce signed a separation agreement thinking she would receive $500 a month in alimony. 

But that alimony had never been agreed to.

“By the time (an attorney) reviewed the matter, it was well past the time to file an appeal,” said Leonard Hall, a lawyer at Hall Law Office in Olathe, Kansas. 

The woman had not been provided with an interpreter, so she struggled to talk to attorneys directly. Hall said that’s why she didn’t understand the agreement. 

She is far from alone.

Kansans who are deaf and hard of hearing don’t have enough access to legal services, advocates say. Interpreters or communication assistance are often not provided and some attorneys decline initial appointments when a person requests that help, said Robert Cooper, executive director of the Kansas Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing. 

“It’s not allowed. It’s illegal,” Cooper said through his interpreter. “It’s surprising it happens. (But) it’s reality.” 

As an example, Cooper talked about a deaf or hard of hearing person who wasn’t provided communication when their family divided up an estate with a large farm. If the person had more help communicating, he said, they “might have known what was going on in the family and how they divided the property.”

Help has been available in Kansas since July, when the state put $10,000 into a communication access fund designed to connect lawyers and hard of hearing clients with communication services.

The fund pays for an interpreter for initial client and counsel meetings, up to two hours. It has a recommended lifetime cap of $500 per person for legal costs. That means someone who is deaf or hard of hearing will have around 10 hours of interpreting costs covered. Once those 10 hours are used up, Cooper said, attorneys see how easy it is to resolve communication issues and they know that help is usually just an email away (DCF.KCDHHrequests@ks.gov). 

Only a few thousand dollars have been used from the fund, so the Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing and the Kansas Bar Association are partnering to spread awareness about the program. 

Hall said not many of his clients know the services are available. 

That knowledge gap is widespread, Cooper said. As a result, deaf and hard of hearing people flock to the same group of lawyers who they know will help them. Those offices can get overcrowded. 

Hall and Cooper said deaf and hard of hearing people face multiple challenges in the criminal justice system, such as a lack of communication assistance in diversion programs or court appearances. Even getting from place to place can be a problem if the person doesn’t drive.

Once in court, Hall said, some judges talk to clients through handwriting rather than rescheduling a court date to call in a qualified interpreter. 

The legal assistance program is only a pilot right now, but Cooper wants to ask for double the funding next year. 

“It (would) be a lot easier if we could set up a system … (so attorneys) realize that there’s support available to them,” Cooper said. “When they learn that, and they can get that kind of support, they become a lot more willing and more motivated and committed to maintain good-faith service.” 

Blaise Mesa is based in Topeka, where he covers the Legislature and state government. He previously covered social services and criminal justice for the Kansas News Service. He also worked as a reporter for the Topeka Capital-Journal.


This article was republished here with the permission of: The Wichita Beacon