Accessible Communication

Communicating effectively and successfully with customers is an important part of doing business. Sometimes businesses aren't sure how to communicate with customers who are blind or have low vision, those who are deaf or hard of hearing, or those who have speech disabilities. The ADA requires businesses to communicate effectively with customers with vision, hearing, and speech disabilities. Because the nature and complexity of communication differs, depending on the type of business, the rules allow for flexibility. A person who is consulting with a lawyer, completing a loan application at a bank, or going to an emergency center, will need a different level of communication than if the person is picking up dry cleaning, purchasing a meal at a restaurant, or making a cash withdrawal at a bank.

The goal of the effective communication provisions of the ADA is to find practical solutions for communicating effectively that work in specific situations. For example, if a person who is deaf is looking for a particular item at a store, exchanging written notes with a clerk may be effective communication. So for many businesses, exchanging written notes might be all that's ever required for effective communication. In other cases, it will depend on the kind of communication that's taking place. If a person who is deaf goes to a bank to deposit a check, the nature of the communication is different than when the same person is completing a mortgage application. If a person who is deaf is going to the doctor to get a flu shot, the complexity of the communication is different than when the same person is going to the doctor to discuss medical test results and treatment options.

One of the most common questions asked about businesses obligations in providing effective communication is whether or not a business is required to provide a sign language interpreter. If a person needs a sign language interpreter in order for communication to be effective, then that's when it must be provided. Effective communication would likely require a sign language or oral interpreter when, because of the nature, length, and complexity of the conversation, when other means of communicating would not be effective. Providing an interpreter guarantees that both parties will understand what is being said. The revised regulations permit the use of new technologies, including video remote interpreting (VRI), a service that allows businesses that have video conferencing equipment to access an interpreter at another location, rather than having an interpreter be physically present. Of course, if providing a sign language interpreter would be an undue financial or administrative burden, then it may be permissible for the entity to look at other ways of providing effective communication. The ADA does not guarantee a particular right to a sign language interpreter, but to effective communication.

If, for example, you require a sign language interpreter while meeting with your doctor, the doctor must pay for the interpreter unless they can prove that it would be an undue burden in light of all of the resources available to the doctor, including tax credits and tax deductions. "Undue burden" is a fairly tough standard, however, in that it is not enough for a business or any entity to simply say that they do not have the money to spend, or that it is an expense that they would rather not have. A court will look not only at the bottom line on an entity's balance sheet, but also at what kind of expenditures are there. The cost cannot be passed along to the individual client.