Does your law firm provide a sign language interpreter for deaf or hard-of-hearing clients? If not, you should consider providing one. Recently, a jury awarded a deaf woman $400,000 in a lawsuit against her doctor for not providing that type of service. The key reason it is vitally important to offer sign language services is compliance with Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”). (Of course, you may also wish to do so because it could be a great source of referrals for estate planning and elder law.)
You may not be aware of this, but since 2006 the Department of Justice has settled cases with at least 14 doctor’s offices and law firms due to ADA violations relating to not providing effective communication avenues to the deaf and hard-of-hearing. In the case of physicians’ offices, it is understandable that they may not understand the ADA’s legal requirements. But, as attorneys, we cannot very well use ignorance of the law as an excuse. It is imperative that we offer our clients, including disabled clients, every possible method of communicating their needs and wishes to us.
It appears that smaller law firms think that because they are small, they don’t need to offer such services. This is a mistaken belief, as Title III has no such safe harbor. In fact, to refresh your memory, Title III states that those with disabilities are entitled to “full and equal enjoyment” of the services of “public accommodation.” And, if you search Title III just a bit further, the list of types of public accommodation include health care providers, hospitals, accountants and lawyers.
In a nutshell, the ADA provisions carry an affirmative duty and a prohibition. This means that lawyers’ offices must not discriminate against those with disabilities who need their services. Accordingly, law offices have the duty to undertake reasonable modifications to their policies, procedures, and practices to offer those with disabilities access to their services.
Often the nature of the service to be provided is based on the needs of the individual, and thus must be approached on a case by case basis. However, this does not mean that offering sign language interpreter services is a cost that may be charged to the client.
How to Communicate Effectively with Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing Individuals
- Do not ask them to bring a relative. Not all family members are fluent in sign language.
- Do not just rely on lip reading. It is not 100 percent accurate and many in the Deaf community do not lip read.
- Pen and paper are not effective methods of communication.
- Choose the best method of communication based on the client’s needs.
- Use professional sign language interpreters.
- Consider video remote interpreting, which uses a computer, the internet, webcams, a phone line, and a live interpreter.
- Consider video relay service, using video phones. The visual mimic of a phone call.
- Try Computer Assisted Realtime Translation or CART, with a steno or CART system specialist, using software and special equipment to offer instant speech to text translation.
- Try Assistive Listening Systems/Devices, which transmit amplified speaking by various methods.
- Use Telecommunication Devices for the Deaf, often referred to as “TDD.”
Does your law office have an effective method in place to assist deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals to communicate with you? If so, what methods do you use?
Stephen C. Hartnett, J.D., LL.M.
Associate Director of Education
American Academy of Estate Planning Attorneys, Inc.
9444 Balboa Avenue, Suite 300
San Diego, California 92123
Phone: (800) 846-1555
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