Story and photo by JED LAYTON
Lana McKinsey left the Layton City Courthouse bewildered.
She had arrived at the courthouse, not because of something she did, but because she was a victim. But when the time arose for her to tell what happened, she was not able to.
McKinsey is visually impaired and has partial hearing loss. She can only hear with the help of hearing aids and describes her sight as looking through a pinhole.
The Helen Keller National Center estimates that more than 70,000 Americans deal with the dual disabilities, a combination McKinsey calls life changing.
It changed her life when she attempted to give her side of the story regarding a plea bargain her neighbor was making for assaulting McKinsey. But when she tried to use the devices for the hearing impaired, she couldn’t hear.
She couldn’t hear the questions and couldn’t give the answers. McKinsey felt she was again the victim.
“They treated me wrong,” McKinsey said. “They wouldn’t let me say my say and excused me from the room. I thought that was not right.”
The whole experience left a negative impression in McKinsey’s mind of the court system and left her unhappy with the way a settlement was reached.
Six months later, McKinsey is still perturbed by her negative experience but has since worked hard to make sure that no one will have to go through what she did.
McKinsey received help from Kirsten Gwilliams, with the Utah Division of Services for the Blind and Visually Impaired, and Lisa Fine, an attorney with the Disability Law Center.
McKinsey arrived in court because on June 1, 2008, she was struck multiple by times by her neighbor, Stephanie Galbraith, in their trailer park in Layton, Utah, McKinsey said. McKinsey had gone over to Galbraith’s home to donate some dog food and other items she thought her neighbor needed.
McKinsey said Galbraith apparently also wanted the pearl necklace around her neck and attempted to take it from her. The struggle over the necklace then escalated to violence, she said.
Galbraith was charged with assault and intoxication a few days later.
The case went to court in September 2008 and Galbraith pleaded guilty to the assault charges as part of a plea bargain. During the proceedings, the court gave McKinsey an opportunity to make a statement.
“When it was my turn to talk, I could not use the device they gave me to use,” McKinsey said. “I couldn’t hear anything. It seemed like they had never had a deaf and blind person there before.”
Gwilliams said most public places have few problems with the assisted hearing devices similar to the one McKinsey attempted to use.
“However, problems arise in two ways,” Gwilliams said. “First, most people don’t know what they are or how to use them, or how to help if they are not working.”
In McKinsey’s case, no one understood why the devices weren’t working and there were no other options for her to try. Typically the Layton City Courthouse uses sign language for those who are completely deaf and can’t use the hearing devices. But McKinsey’s blindness prevented that option.
“The other problem is that there are two types of assistive listening devices typically used,” Gwilliams said. “One is a device that uses infrared and comes with ear phones. She had to take her hearing aids out to use them, but that did not accommodate her.”
McKinsey said taking her hearing aids out makes her lose nearly all of her hearing. She left the courthouse frustrated, upset and offended. Gwilliams said most courts use infrared devices because the signals do not pass through walls.
McKinsey contacted Fine and the Disability Law Center through Gwilliams. Fine listened to McKinsey’s story and quickly realized there was a problem.
“We arranged to meet with some of the Layton Courthouse administrators who were very receptive and concerned about the situation,” Fine said.
Fine said she was surprised by how quickly and professionally courthouse officials dealt with the situation. Fine also said the Layton Courthouse was not in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act — a piece of legislation that makes it illegal to discriminate against people who have disabilities.
The Americans with Disabilities Act requires public entities to ensure communication with individuals with disabilities. It recommends the use of auxiliary aids, assistive listening systems, interpreters and many other options, all of which the Layton Courthouse had on hand. However, McKinsey was in a unique position because she could use none of them.
“It was an example of exactly how these types of things should be handled. They realized something had gone wrong and fixed it,” Fine said, notin that officials included McKinsey in the decision making process.
McKinsey was able to pick between varieties of different assistive hearing devices borrowed from neighboring courthouses. The devices were of a different type using radio frequencies instead of infrared signals. These devices used headphones instead of earphones.
“I was able to put them on and listen and had Lisa try them on too,” McKinsey said. “It was obvious which one was better and they said they would purchase one and put it in the court.”
McKinsey said that while she was not pleased with the way her own case with the court was handled, she was pleased to know someone else like her will not have to go through the stress and emotion.
“I wondered if there is another person that could have the same problem I did,” McKinsey said. “I didn’t want them to go through that.”
Fine said dealing with the Layton Courthouse was simple and easy. “They deserve a lot of credit. They did most of the work,” she said.
Since meeting with Fine and Layton Courthouse officials, McKinsey said she has moved beyond the problem and has started to move on with her life. But she said it is a relief to her that she knows that there is a way for her to communicate if she needs to go back into court.
McKinsey said she still worries that her neighbor, who lives just a short walk down the road, might seek retribution and is concerned she won’t obey the stipulations of her sentencing.
“If she doesn’t do what she is told, I will go back to the Disability Law Center, and they will represent me,” McKinsey said.