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911 should accept texts from disabled, says lawsuit

Two New Yorkers with disabilities who are unable to communicate with 911 operators by telephone have filed a lawsuit in federal court in Brooklyn, alleging that local governments discriminate against them by denying them direct access to emergency services.

Deborah LoGerfo of Babylon and Nicholas Dupree of Queens are asking a federal judge to order Suffolk and Nassau counties, as well as New York City, to implement text-to-911 technology, which would allow individuals who have speech or hearing impairments to send a text message to 911 dispatchers from their mobile phones or devices.

There are thousands of New Yorkers like LoGerfo and Dupree whose disabilities rob them of the ability to speak or hear, said Elizabeth Grossman, an attorney for Disability Rights New York, a federally-mandated advocate for the disabled.

“They live in fear every single day of experiencing an emergency and not having a plan for it,” she said. “People without disabilities have a plan, and that plan is to call 911.”

Text-to-911 technology is currently being used by 11 out of 62 counties in New York and a dozen states across the nation, including Colorado, Georgia, Ohio, Montana and New Jersey, Grossman said.

Dupree, who had a tracheotomy, is on a ventilator and communicates by using text messaging and eye tracking software. He had to rely on someone else to call 911 on his behalf when he had several medical emergencies in 2016, according to the lawsuit.

LoGerfo, who communicates primarily via written messages, including notes, emails and texting, as well as lip-reading and closed-captioning,was unable to hear the 911 operator when she called and reported a car fire several years ago.

The lawsuit, filed last week against Suffolk, Nassau and New York City, seeks an immediate upgrade to 911 call centers to accomodate texts.

Nassau County Attorney Carnell Foskey declined to comment Monday, according to Brian Nevin, a spokesman for County Executive Edward Mangano. However, Foskey said in the last six months the Nassau County police department has been evaluating available systems for receiving texts.

Spokespeople for Suffolk County Executive Steven Bellone and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio did not respond to requests for comments Monday.

In June, Suffolk’s police commissioner said the Next Generation 911 system that is capable of accepting videos, photos and files sent via text message is expected to be running this year. But he said it was not clear whether telecommunications companies will allow more data than simple text messages to go through. In July, Brooklyn Councilwoman Laurie Cumbo (D-Brooklyn) estimated that New York City would not be able to contact 911 dispatchers via texts for at least two years.

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