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State Bar of Michigan
Volume 7, Issue 1, October 2011

Committee on Justice Initiatives and Equal Access Initiative Disabilities Project

Disabilities Project Newsletter

Accommodating the Deaf or Hard of Hearing Client in the Law Office Setting
by Brian D. Sheridan, Steward & Sheridan PLC

You have a client or a potential client who is deaf or hard of hearing coming to see you in your office. What provisions should you make to ensure that he or she can communicate with you, both at the initial office conference and thereafter?

Legal Requirements

A lawyer’s office is considered a "public accommodation" under the Americans with Disabilities Act.1 As such, the attorney must take steps that are necessary to ensure that no individual with a disability is denied services or treated differently than other individuals because of the absence of auxiliary aids and services, unless the attorney can show that providing those aids or services would result in an "undue burden," i.e., a significant difficulty or expense.2 Most people think of "handicapped accessibility" in terms of wheelchair access (elevators, ramps, etc.), but hearing impairments are a far more common disability and in their more severe forms are equally effective in rendering a law office inaccessible without the appropriate accommodations.

Failure to provide such auxiliary aids and services for a hearing impaired client can result in sanctions against the attorney by the Justice Department if a complaint is filed under the ADA. See e.g., Settlement Agreement between the U.S.A. and Joseph David Camacho, Esq.3 and Settlement Agreement between the U.S.A. and Gregg Tirone, Esq.4

The cost of the auxiliary aid or service, whether an assistive listening system or a sign language interpreter, cannot be passed on to the client in any form by the attorney.

Practical Considerations

Hard of Hearing Clients

Not all clients who are hard of hearing (as opposed to deaf) will self-identify as such before your initial conference with them. They may not even be aware of the extent of their hearing loss or the degree to which it affects their ability to understand what you are saying. Having the meeting in a quiet, well-lighted room, and speaking distinctly while facing the client will assist in the communication process. (Bear in mind that many of the words and concepts you are using will be unfamiliar to a lay person). If it becomes obvious during the office conference that the client is not able to understand what you are saying, and that speaking up or having your client "turn up the hearing aid" is not solving the problem, you should reschedule the office conference after ascertaining what types of auxiliary services or aids the client may require to enable the conference to go forward.

Hard of hearing persons normally have some residual hearing and the task for the attorney and client will be to determine the best means to accommodate that residual hearing so that effective communication can take place. In general, these types of accommodations can be broken down into the following categories:

    Assistive Listening Systems. The hard of hearing client, with or without hearing aids, will often benefit from an assistive listening system. This can be as simple as a "pocket talker," which is a battery operated device about the size of a deck of cards. A microphone is clipped to the attorney’s lapel and the amplifier unit is given to the hard of hearing person, who uses ear buds, headphones, or a neck loop (if he or she is using hearing aids or a cochlear implant equipped with a telecoil) to understand the attorney. The cost of such a device is minimal and any attorney who has any significant number of dealings with hard of hearing clients would be well advised to have one in the office.

    CART. CART stands for Computer Assisted Real-Time Transcription. It is similar to the real time captioning seen on television. Fortunately, with today’s technology, the CART reporter does not need to be physically present in the room. Online CART services are available in which the spoken words of the attorney are transmitted over the Internet to the CART reporter who then types the words in real time and, through the same Internet connection, displays them on the screen for the hard of hearing person to read.5

    Telephone Calls. For telephone communications, many hard of hearing people use a teletypewriter (TTY, also known as a TDD) rather than a standard telephone. These devices have a keyboard and a visual display for exchanging written messages over the telephone. A free relay service translates the spoken words of the attorney to written form on the hard of hearing person’s TDD. Either the attorney or the client can initiate such a call by dialing 711. No special equipment is needed on the attorney’s side of the phone call.

Deaf Clients

Clients who are deaf and use American Sign Language (ASL), or some variant thereof, will most likely require a certified interpreter to be able to handle the significant demands of a conversation about an involved legal matter. It is not appropriate to use family members or companions as interpreters, both because they are unlikely to be "qualified" and because the confidentiality of the communication with the attorney will be compromised.

    Certified interpreters. These can be found in the Yellow Pages or on various websites.6

    VRI. If it is not practical to hire a certified interpreter to come to your office, Video Remote Interpreting (VRI) is another option. This service uses video/conferencing equipment (sometimes a webcam and high speed Internet connection in your office will suffice) to provide sign language interpreting services. The equipment is set up in the room with the deaf person and attorney, and an interpreter at a call center uses a headset to hear what the attorney is saying, and signs to a camera at the interpreter’s location so that the deaf person can see the sign language interpretation. The deaf person replies in sign to the interpreter over the camera or webcam in the lawyer’s office, who then voices the interpretation for the benefit of the attorney. For more information, see the e-Michigan deaf and hard of hearing site7, or google "video remote interpreting."8

    Telephone Calls. Telephone calls with deaf persons can be made using the relay service described above for the hard of hearing; however, many deaf persons do not use written English as their primary means of communication, and a video relay service (which only will work when the deaf person and attorney are in separate locations) will provide the same type of communication ability, and is free. As with the relay service, no special equipment is required at the attorney’s office.9

Summary

Most of the accommodations described above are available at minimal or no cost. Further information regarding these accommodations can be obtained from the State of Michigan Department of Civil Rights Division on Deaf and Hard of Hearing or (877) 499-6232.

Other states have also provided publications with comprehensive suggestions for communicating for clients who are deaf or hard of hearing, or deaf/blind.10

This article has focused on interaction in the law office setting. For information and resources regarding courtroom access, see the October, 2005, Michigan Bar Journal article: Hearing at the Hearing: Using Assistive Listening Technology in the Courtroom.11

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