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How far must we go to accommodate deaf clients?

by on
in Office Communication,Workplace Communication

Q. My company provides health care services. Recently, a deaf client said we had to pay for a sign language interpreter. Is that true?

A.
Probably. Many service providers, particularly smaller organizations, do not understand the requirements under Title III of the ADA relating to public accommodations. They mistakenly believe that, because there is a size limitation (15 or more employees) on the ADA’s coverage of employers under Title I, there is a corresponding limitation on the coverage of Title III. There isn’t.

Under Title III of the ADA, individuals with disabilities are entitled to “full and equal enjoyment” of the services of a “public accommodation.” An “office of an accountant or lawyer … professional office of a health care provider, hospital, or other service establishment” are explicitly listed as a public accommodation under Title III.

The ADA includes both a prohibition and an affirmative duty. Public accommodations providers may not discourage or discriminate against individuals with disabilities seeking their services. In addition, they have an affirmative duty to “make reasonable modifications in policies, practices, or procedures” and provide reasonable “auxiliary aids and services” to serve individuals with disabilities.

In this area, the biggest issue that arises for individuals with hearing loss or deafness is determining which measures are necessary to ensure effective communication.

The specific practical changes or auxiliary aids and service required depend on the needs of the individual. Additional costs incurred may not be billed to the client.

Modifications to policies or auxiliary aids or services, however, are not required if it “would fundamentally alter the nature of [the] services ….” Similarly, an auxiliary aid or service is not required if it “would result in an undue burden.”

However, the fact that one option would result in an undue burden does not necessarily eliminate the obligation to ensure effective communication. There is likely an alternative auxiliary aid or service that would not result in an undue burden or fundamental alteration, but would still ensure effective communication to the maximum extent possible.

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