Indigent Deaf Find Fierce Advocates in Husband-Wife Legal Team
BY REBECCA BAKER
REPRESENTING the indigent deaf poses a host of legal challenges for Bruce and Liz Gitlin, a husband-and-wife team who run a public interest law firm in Manhattan. Among them is making lawyers, judges and other officials understand that some deaf people can’t just “write it down.” “Just because you speak American Sign Language doesn’t necessarily mean that you also read English,” Bruce Gitlin said.
“There are things you don’t think of in the hearing world,” Liz Gitlin added. “It’s not unusual for people to say, ‘Well, I’ll just write and explain what I need.’ People just don’t know that a deaf person may not read English totally.”
Educating the legal community about the needs of the indigent deaf has been the life’s work of the Gitlins, who themselves are not deaf, and their Upper West Side firm, the New York Center for Law and Justice. The center, which the Gitlins opened in 2001, has represented the deaf for more than a decade, particularly low- income deaf clients facing eviction, loss of benefits, domestic violence and other poverty-related issues. The firm also has taken political asylum cases for deaf cli- ents from Jamaica, Gambia and the Mid- dle East with help from large firms such as Kirkland & Ellis, Kramer Levin Naf- talis & Frankel and Bracewell & Giuliani. What makes it particularly difficult for indi- gent deaf clients is the absence of language access that would allow them to represent themselves pro se, Bruce Gitlin said.
The Gitlins recently scored their biggest legal victory— a settlement with New York City that requires it to provide deaf interpreters in the city’s homeless shelters, to train shelter employ- ees on how best to interact with the deaf and” “to install safety features for the eaf such as visual fire alarms and doorbells.”