Why Can’t We Text 911? Disability Rights Advocates Sue To Find Out

Without the ability to hear or speak, communicating with emergency respondents over the phone can be near impossible

Illustration: Vocativ
Jan 12, 2017 at 4:05 PM ET

You’d think that, with all the texting everyone does today, by now we’d be able to text 911. But summoning the police with your thumbs is still not possible in most states and counties, and this week, in New York, disability rights advocates are suing to speed up the technology’s adoption.

Two New Yorkers with communication disabilities have taken up the lawsuit, which was filed by the advocacy group Disability Rights New York. Defendant Deborah LoGerfo of Long Island is partially deaf and cannot use a telephone. LoGerfo can speak, and has made a 911 call in the past for the purpose of reporting an incident, but had to caveat her good samaritan call in saying, “I can’t hear,” without the ability to answer follow-up questions. Nicholas Dupree, the other defendant, is unable to speak, communicating through eye-tracking software and text messaging, as he has a tracheotomy and is on a ventilator.

“Emergency services are among the most important responsibilities of government agencies, and their failure to provide 911 access to all residents leaves many people at serious risk of injury or death,” Disability Rights New York director Elizabeth Grossman told Vocativ in an e-mail. “People with communication disabilities are in constant fear of fire, crime, medical crises, and other disasters, while people without disabilities have confidence that they will be provided critical and timely assistance.”

Text-to-911 calling is already available in certain districts in at least 12 states across the country, including 11 out of New York’s 62 counties. While police representatives in Long Island, where LoGerfo lives, say that enabling this feature is currently in the works, Grossman believes it has taken long enough. The suit states that the city’s lack of a text 911 service is in violation of federal laws protecting those with disabilities.

“We believe there is no reason why Text to 911 services should not have been put in place years ago,” Grossman stated. “Text to 911 is possible to implement, it’s working well, and it has provided critical assistance to people with disabilities.”

The Federal Communications Commission first began encouraging text providers accommodate text-to-911 software in 2014. In Vermont, where 90 percent of residents have access to this kind of service, a report from the state’s Advanced 9-1-1 board made after an 18-month trial revealed 34 texts detailing “legitimate emergencies” were sent. Six involved medical emergencies.

“While we do not know if any of the texts came from individuals who are deaf, hard of hearing or have a speech impairment, it is clear that text is helpful in situations where individuals are in danger and making a voice call could increase that danger,” the report stated, noting four texts reporting instances of domestic violence.

Last year in Georgia, a deaf woman’s text to 911 helped police officers recover two children who had been left inside a car for over an hour.