SMART ALEC recommends that all jurisdictions with large populations take affirmative steps to make their government meetings accessible to individuals with disabilities, including disabilities related to hearing.
In 2018 and 2019, we drafted two ordinances for Closed Captioning of Government Meetings, and for related Disability Signage, which passed the Atlanta City Council; and are set to be implemented in March 2020 (the original implementation date was January 2020).
19-O-1385, codified as City of Atlanta Code of Ordinances, Part II, Chapter 2, Sec. 2-73 (“Real-time Closed Captioning”)
19-O-1386, codified as City of Atlanta Code of Ordinances, Part II, Chapter 2, Sec. 2-74 (“Accessibility Notices”)
Here is the language we recommend for disability signage, to be posted on meeting agendas, government websites, and on physical signage near the entrance to the meeting space:
“The City/County of NAME desires for all its residents to have the opportunity to participate in our City Council/County Commission Meetings. If you require reasonable accommodations in our meetings, you have the right under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 to make a request that these be provided to you. Please make any such requests at least two (2) business days prior to the meeting for which you need accommodations.”
The sign should also provide contact information for the individual or office to whom to make a request or inquiry. The City of Atlanta chose for this to be the Office of the Municipal Clerk.
Jurisdictions that already videotape their meetings; and air them on television and/or post them on the Internet, should adopt a Closed Captioning policy to require that those videos contain a Real-Time Closed Captioning scrolling ticker across the bottom of the video.
Technology is available that can allow the scrolling ticker to be displayed live on a monitor in the room where the meeting is being held, so that, with just a few second delay, the scrolling transcript will appear on the screen, so that people who are deaf or hard of hearing can more meaningfully participate in the live meeting.
Real-Time Closed Captioning does involve the use of a remote transcriptionist who is listening to the meeting and typing up the live feed remotely. The transcriptionist will then review the transcript after the meeting and correct any errors, with accuracy of the transcript typically between 96 and 99 percent.
Real-Time Closed Captioning does have a cost, which larger jurisdictions are in a better position to bear. We are not in a position of assessing jurisdictions’ ability to pay; and therefore, we are not defining “large jurisdiction” for the purposes of this proposal.
In fact, the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, which requires that governments provide reasonable accommodations with people with disabilities, upon request, allows each agency to determine for themselves what is a burdensome request, subject to court review. In other words, what may be feasible for one jurisdiction, may not be feasible for another under the ADA.
The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990
The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, as implemented through 28 C.F.R. 35, provides many provisions for state and local governments with which we should be concerned.
28 C.F.R. 35-130 (General Prohibitions against Discrimination) provides that no qualified individual with a disability shall on the basis of disability be excluded from participation in, or be denied the services or programs of, a government entity; and that government entities shall provide reasonable accommodations upon request.
28 C.F.R. 35-160(a): A public entity shall take appropriate steps to ensure that communications with applicants, participants, and members of the public with a qualified disability are as effective as communications with others.
The ADA provides the framework for a member of the public in a jurisdiction to request closed captioning, American Sign Language, or any reasonable accommodation related to their disability that would remove barriers to their participation in government meetings. However, it does put the burden on individuals to make such a request.
In at least one federal action by the U.S. Department of Justice, USDOJ Complaint 204-12C-105, the federal government settled with the City of San Bernadino, California, in a matter where the city had declined to provide sign language interpreters to a member of the public upon request under the ADA. In the settlement, the City agreed to provide such services upon request going forward.
We take the position, however, that we ought not wait for someone to make a request or file a complaint, because this has the perverse effect of putting the burden on one individual to create a cost to the taxpayers, when there is more than likely more than one individual who requires the services. Removing barriers to access to democracy for individuals with special needs or vulnerabilities is a joy and privilege of a civilized society, not a burden.
Closed-Captioning versus American Sign Language
Whether to provide Closed-Captioning versus American Sign Language is a decision unique to each jurisdictions.
Governments that do not already videotape or broadcast their meetings will obviously need to consider ASL as an accommodation option.
Some individuals with disabilities who are hard of hearing are very fluid and comfortable with ASL. Based on our consultation with disability advocates and with Fulton County, Georgia, it seems that not everyone who is hard of hearing is not necessary able to read ASL. In fact, individuals who lose their hearing later in life, such as seniors or veterans, are less likely to learn ASL than individuals who are born with hearing difficulties.
Closed-Captioning has the potential to help more people than ASL, while also having the added side-benefit of creating a transcript of what is said during the meetings, which makes for a substantial historical resource.
On the other hand, Closed-Captioning also requires good vision, or access to cable television of the Internet in some cases. Or ASL may simply be preferred by members of the local community who express an interest in benefitting from accessibility services.
We would like to acknowledge Disability Link and Fulton County, Georgia, for providing input and information for the development of this model ordinance.
We would like to acknowledge Councilman Michael Julian Bond (Post 1-at-large) for introducing the two ordinances in Atlanta.