Two prominent disability rights organizations recently submitted public comments [PDF] to the Federal Communications Commission, calling on the agency to mandate expanded accessible telephone options for inmates.
“The result of the current communication paradigm is that prisoners who are deaf or hard of hearing or have communication disabilities are often denied equal access to communicate with those outside the prison, a violation of Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act,” the National Disability Rights Network and the National Association of the Deaf wrote in the comments, submitted January 19. “These prisoners have gone months, years, and in some cases, decades, without equal access to telecommunication services.
“Many have lost their ability to communicate, and some have become depressed due to the isolation that persists. Others have decompensated and tried or been successful with death by suicide.”
The proposed FCC regulations [PDF], announced in in October [PDF], came in response to reports of telephone companies imposing $14-a-minute charge on prisoner’s phone calls. The FCC proposed capping short-term and in-state long distance calls at 11 cents per minute, coupled with a tiered structure for interstate, long distance calls.
The regulations further elaborate that telephone companies must provide “functionally equivalent” services for people who are deaf or hard of hearing, specifying that phones must be equipped with TTYs, a popular form of text-telephone.
The NDRN and NAD, however, dispute that providing TTYs alone would make the services ‘functionally equivalent’. Specifically, they urged the FCC to also require that inmates be able to use videophones, which it argues are necessary for people who rely on sign language as their primary means of communication.
“(American Sign Language) is not a manual form of English,” the letter states. “Instead, ASL is its own unique language, with its own grammar, structure and syntax. As such, there is not a one-to-one correspondence between English words and ASL, and many deaf people are not fluent in written English.
“Videophones, not TTYs, are the functional equivalent of telephones for this group of prisoners. The signing deaf and hard of hearing community have long since adopted videophones as the primary form of telecommunication over TTYs.”
Disability Rights Washington, the publisher of Rooted in Rights, is the designated protection and advocacy agency in Washington, and a member of the National Disability Rights Network.