Understanding Your Child’s Rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act
Whether your child is deaf or hard of hearing, whether your child signs or is oral, your child may experience discrimination at some time in life because of his or her hearing loss. It is your job as a parent to learn about your child’s rights and advocate for those rights during your child’s youth, and teach your child about those rights to foster self-advocacy in adulthood.
There are state and federal laws, rules, and regulations that protect the rights of people with disabilities. One federal law is the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) which was signed into law in 1990 and has four main sections called “Titles.” In order to be protected by the provisions of the ADA, you have to be a person with a disability, which has several definitions. The main definition of experiencing a disability is being limited in one or more major life activities, such as hearing, walking, or seeing. Another federal law is the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which mirrors the ADA but applies to the federal government and any place that receives federal funding.
Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Its Four Titles
Title I of the ADA prohibits employers, employment agencies, labor unions and joint labor-management committees in the private sector from discriminating against persons with disabilities. The law applies to private employers who have 15 or more employees, although some states have additional laws that apply to employers who have less than 15 employees. The law also applies to state governments and agencies in their employment practices. However, federal employees, such as postal workers, are protected by Section 501 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, rather than by the ADA. The ADA requires employers to not consider a job applicant’s disability when hiring. The ADA also requires employers to provide employees with disabilities a “reasonable accommodation” when necessary to aid such employees in performing essential functions of the job. Reasonable accommodation is defined as a modification or adjustment to a job, the work environment, or the way things are usually done to enable a qualified individual with a disability to have an equal employment opportunity (29 C.F.R. Š1630.9(a). Accommodations may include TTYs, interpreters, real-time captioning, amplified phones, visual alarms, assistive listening devices, note takers, etc.
Title II of the ADA prohibits state and local government from discriminating against persons with disabilities. Examples of state and local government are schools, social service agencies, libraries, state and local courts (civil, criminal, traffic, small claims, etc. whether you are a defendant, plaintiff, juror, witness, or member of the public), prisons, jails, etc. State or local agencies that receive federal financial assistance are also covered under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.
Title III of the ADA prohibits places of public accommodation, regardless of size or non-profit status, from discriminating against persons with disabilities. Places of public accommodation include: doctors’ and lawyers’ offices, trade shows and conferences, hotels and motels, theatres, banks, museums, parks, restaurants, private schools, etc. These places must provide auxiliary aids and services to ensure effective communication so that the person with a hearing loss is able to benefit from the offered services and facilities.
Title IV of the ADA requires telephone companies to establish interstate and intrastate Telecommunications Relay Services (TRS) 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. TRS allows persons who have a hearing loss who use a TTY (teletypewriters), a pager, or a computer to communicate through an operator or interpreter, directly with a hearing/voice telephone user. Title IV has expanded to include video relay services (VRS) for people who are deaf to use as an alternative to TRS.
What Does the ADA Say About Communication Access for the Deaf/Hard of Hearing?
Effective communication can look different for each person who is deaf or hard of hearing, so the law does not dictate which form it could take. The ADA does not specify that only a sign language interpreter be provided for a person with a hearing loss, but it does require that “effective communication” be provided. This could be accomplished through the use of a sign language interpreter, writing back and forth, lip-reading, etc, depending on the communication mode and needs of the person with a hearing loss. While an interpreter might be the only means to effective communication for one, various different means of communication might be used for another individual.
Who Requests Communication Access or Interpreting Services?
The ADA was written so that the person with the disability is supposed to ask for an accommodation. The provider is not always obligated to ask the person who is deaf, “Do you need an interpreter?” You, as a parent, need to teach your child how to ask for the help s/he needs to access communication, whether its signed or spoken. If your child can only “effectively communicate” via sign language, then you/he should state “in order to effectively communicate with you, I require a sign language interpreter.” If your child can effectively communicate via sign language and written communication, then it is the provider who gets to choose which method to use. There are many technologies in place to support non-signed communication, (including telephone relay services, voice relay, pager and even Instant Messaging online) so be sure to specify which your child prefers and provide easy instructions on use so the provider will find it easy to accommodate this request.
It is also the provider who chooses which interpreter/interpreter agency to use, not the person who has a hearing loss. As long as a qualified interpreter is used, then the provider is fulfilling his/her obligations under the ADA. A “qualified interpreter” is defined as “. . . an interpreter who is able to interpret effectively, accurately and impartially both receptively and expressively, using any necessary specialized vocabulary.” 28 C.F.R. 36.303(b)(1) Many states have additional requirements for interpreters, some in educational settings, some in legal/court settings, and some require licensure.
Knowledge is Power
In my work, I have encountered many who do not understand the law and who do not know how to ask for an accommodation. Just as anyone without a disability or hearing loss has a right to understand his doctor, or lawyer, or a speaker at a conference, your child deserves the same right. For more information about the rights of persons with disabilities, how to advocate for your child or yourself, or how to file a complaint, please contact Karen Aguilar at 800.894.3653 (voice) or 800.894.3654 (TTY) or KGAguilar@mcld.org. ~
Karen Aguilar is on the board of Illinois Hands & Voices, and is the Coalition Director of CHOICES for Parents, agency partner in bringing Guide By Your Side to Illinois. CHOICES for Parents is a statewide coalition of parents and professionals that provides immediate access to support, information, and resources to parents whose children have a hearing loss. Ms. Aguilar serves as the Associate Director of the Midwest Center on Law and the Deaf (MCLD). MCLD serves the Midwestern States in promoting and protecting the constitutional, civil, and other legal rights of persons who are deaf and hard-of-hearing. Ms. Aguilar has a Masters of Jurisprudence in Health Law and is also a certified sign language interpreter.