Deaf Man Jailed Without Access To Interpreter For Six Weeks ‘Felt Lost’

Abreham Zemedagegehu is a deaf man who was jailed for stealing an iPad which was later found by its owner. If that wasn’t bad enough, Zemedagegehu claims medical procedures were performed on him without explanation or consent and he was without an interpreter the whole time he was imprisoned.

According to the Associated Press, Abreham was born in Ethiopia but is a U.S. citizen. He initially learned Ethiopian Sign Language, but eventually learned American Sign Language (ASL). However, Abreham Zemedagegehu only knows very little rudimentary written English.

Zemedagegehu is a homeless man, and he decided to sleep at Reagan National Airport on February 2, 2014. Sometime during his stay at the airport, another man accused him of stealing his iPad and officers arrested Zemedagegehu.

Zemedagegehu claims he asked for an ASL interpreter because he did not know why he was being arrested, but he was taken to the Arlington jail and processed. He claims that people were speaking to him but since he is deaf, he had no clue what they were saying.

After he was booked, Zemedagegehu had to submit to a medical screening. He claims forms were given to him to sign, but since he did not know what they were, he refused to sign them. The deaf man then was poked in the arm with a needle without any explanation, and then he suffered a bad reaction to it. It turns out that he was being given a tuberculosis test, the Associated Press reported.

The man finally had access to an interpreter two days later at his arraignment when a court interpreter was present. Abreham learned what he had been arrested for, and he was given a TTY device to communicate. Abreham claims the machine only typed out English words he did not understand, so it was pointless for him to use it. He also claimed no one in the deaf community uses those devices any longer, either. He says he needed access to a videophone or video relay service which he is more familiar with.

Major David Kidwell of the jail for the sheriff claims the use of the TTY machine is definitely used by the deaf community.

“It gets used, absolutely. It’s an accepted practice, and we’ve had great success with it.”

Zemedagegehu spent six weeks in jail and says his time was frightening and isolating. He decided to sue the Arliington County sheriff in federal court because he believes his treatment failed to meet the standards of the Americans With Disabilities Act.

“I felt like I was losing my mind. I thought Virginia would give me an interpreter and they said no. That’s why I felt lost.”

Abreham says he did not steal the iPad, but he did plead to lesser misdemeanor charges in exchange for time served to get out of jail. After the guilty plea, Abreham’s public defender filed a motion to have his conviction overturned because it is alleged the prosecutors did not turn over evidence that the man who claimed Abreham stole the iPad actually found his iPad long before Abreham pleaded guilty. Prosecutors deny the allegations, and a judge would not overturn the conviction because the appeal was filed too late.

A lawyer with the National Association of the Deaf, Caroline Jackson, is helping Abreham Zemedagegehu with his case, as is the Akin Gump firm.

Lawyers for the sheriff claim no intentional discrimination was shown, because various ways to communicate with the deaf man were attempted, including handwritten notes. Not bringing in an interpreter was rational, they maintain: “it takes extra resources and creates additional security considerations to bring in an ASL interpreter.”

Larry Tanenbaum, a lawyer with the Akin Gump firm, cannot understand how the sheriff could be so calloused to the deaf man who was jailed. “To me, it’s a matter of human kindness. You see a person in your care who’s lost. How do you not help him?”

[Photo by AP Photo/Matt Barakat]