The lawyer for a group of deaf Missourians suing the Department of Mental Health says his clients are being discriminated against, citing the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Ken Chackes is one of the attorneys representing the Missouri Association for the Deaf and 13 deaf people in the case. He says there are 1,100 deaf people in the state with mental illnesses; many of which are not receiving the equal treatment they should.

“There needs to be professionals, mental health professionals who are knowledgeable about how deaf people experience mental illness and professionals who can communicate with deaf people,” Chackes said.

He says the lack of equal services, like the ones available to members of the general public that are not deaf, can have dire consequences.

“The situation has resulted in the suicides of deaf Missourians. There are victims of sexual abuse who are unable to get any therapy. There are people who are stuck in hospitals and nursing homes in complete isolation because there’s no one there who can communicate with them much less provide appropriate treatment,” Chackes said.

Chackes says training for mental health workers, and for the interpreters that work with them, could make the system better. He says advocates have been asking the state to make improvements for decades now, but it’s never happened. So a lawsuit was the only option.

“Some of the documents that the Department of Mental Health has presented to the legislature even admit that they’re not doing an adequate job of providing care that’s designed to meet the needs of deaf people,” Chackes said.

He says a handful of other states have implemented these programs to make sure the deaf don’t slip through the cracks. In at least one case, Chackes says, a similar lawsuit prompted the state to do so.

He says the group realizes it’s an unfortunate time to demand improvements, while the department is already facing budget cuts. But he says they want to work with the department and the Attorney General’s office to find a way to improve the services for the deaf.

“Trying to craft a solution that would be implemented over time and that fits within the state budget. You know, we can’t create money for the state, but we think the money that the state has has to be spent fairly and equitably so that a large group of citizens isn’t excluded from the services the state provides,” Chackes said.

Chackes said he has attempted to contact the Attorney General’s office to try to work out a solution, but has not had any response yet.

AUDIO: Ryan Famuliner reports (:63 mp3)