Disabilities can create courtroom confusion


For many people, the courtroom is unfamiliar territory.

The judicial process can be difficult to understand and the legal language seems foreign. Life-changing decisions are made by strangers and a significant amount of trust is put in the hands of attorneys, judges and jurors.

Add in a communication barrier, and the courtroom becomes more intimidating. For many people with communication disabilities, such as a speech impediment or deafness, it can be a nightmare.

Barbara Toomer, secretary of the Disabled Rights Action Committee, a privately funded and nonprofit organization, said people with disabilities are often at a disadvantage in public places, including the courtroom.

Toomer said such disadvantages can be in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act. However, the Disabled Rights Action Committee and other organizations are working to change that.

“It is discrimination to deny someone public services regardless of any disability,” Toomer said. “We are trying to make sure people have a voice and access in their communities.”

The Americans with Disabilities Act was created by Congress in 1990 and signed into place by George H.W. Bush. It changed the way public places were required to accommodate people with disabilities, especially in regard to communication.

The ADA requires public agencies to provide ways in which people with disabilities can effectively communicate with others, just like an average person can, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

Toomer said one of the biggest problems people with disabilities face is that ADA regulations are often unknown or confusing.

“Many public agencies don’t know of the ADA or don’t know it well enough,” she said, “and some people with disabilities don’t know their own rights.”

People who have ADA complaints can contact the Disabled Rights Action Committee or similar organizations. The Disability Law Center provides free legal advice and representation for Utahns with disabilities. The Access Utah Network is a government agency that is attempting to make Utah more accessible to people with disabilities.

“[The Disabled Rights Action Committee] will get them in contact with a disability rights attorney that can advise them,” Toomer said.

Lisa Fine, an attorney with the Disability Law Center, said most Utah courts want to help people with disabilities have better access.

Fine provided legal counsel and helped mediate a disability access complaint between Lana McKinsey of Layton, Utah, and the Layton City Courthouse. She said it served as an example of how courtrooms and people with disabilities can work together to find solutions.

McKinsey was born mostly blind and has been partially deaf for the last five years. She can only hear with the help of hearing aids.

McKinsey was in court because of a domestic violence case where she was the victim. When it was McKinsey’s turn to speak she was unable to use any of the accommodations the Layton courthouse had in place to help people with disabilities.

The ADA recommends public entities have qualified interpreters, note takers, computer-aided transcription services, assistive listening devices and systems, audio recordings, Braille and large print materials, hearing aids and other methods to make communication accessible to all.

McKinsey could not use translation, telecommunications devices for deaf persons, captioning or video text displays because of her limited sight.

She was also unable to use the assistive listening devices because the amplifiers conflicted with her hearing aids. None of the other ADA methods worked or were available.

McKinsey left the courthouse in tears because she was unable to hear the questions and provide answers in a case that directly involved her.

She contacted Fine a few days after the communication dilemma. Fine said the situation was difficult but was appropriately dealt with by the Layton Courthouse.

“I was impressed. It was a government entity that responded quickly and sincerely,” Fine said.

Al Hansen, the building coordinator for the Second District Court for Utah, which includes the Layton City Courthouse, helped resolve McKinsey’s problem and recommended a similar procedure for other public entities in comparable situations.

“We determined the problem, did our own research and then involved Lana [McKinsey] in the decision making process,” Hansen said. The courthouse obtained other types of assistive listening devices from neighboring courthouses and let McKinsey determine which one best suited her.

“It was a win-win situation for everyone,” he said. “We felt good about it, she felt good and now we have both kinds of assistive listening devices for the future.”

Fine said the situation was handled perfectly and was an example of how ADA complaints should be resolved.

Hansen said the courts he oversees do their best to follow the guidelines set out by the ADA and attempt to fix problems as soon as possible.

“We want everyone to feel comfortable if they need to come to court,” Hansen said. “It is almost impossible, but we do the best we can to meet everyone’s needs.”

Still, Toomer and other disability organizations would like to see the courts make more improvements.

Mark Smith, information specialist for the Access Utah Network, said enforcement of ADA regulations is mostly driven forward by people with disabilities. He said limited regulation and enforcement has made the ADA a weak document.

“People with disabilities just about have to beg for changes to be made to make areas more accessible for them,” Smith said.

Toomer said some Utah courts are still not up to ADA code. Toomer, who uses a power wheelchair to move around, said she wishes public-service providers would take it upon themselves to better understand and abide by the ADA.

“Unfortunately it is up to people with disabilities to make sure the laws are enforced,” Toomer said.

Smith and Toomer said ADA problems occur more often outside of the Wasatch Front.

One problem rural courthouses face is distance. Few small towns have trained interpreters on hand for those requiring American Sign Language or foreign language translation. The Grand County Courthouse in Moab, Utah, requests interpreters from either Salt Lake City or Arizona, both of which are at least a four-hour-drive away.

Rural areas also have smaller populations; special-needs requests are less frequent, which can catch some public venues off guard.

“Smaller courthouses likely do not have the technology larger ones do,” Fine said. “Often there isn’t a need so communication methods aren’t as likely to be made available.”

Claudia Page, clerk of court for Grand and San Juan counties, said her courthouse in Moab tries as much as possible to make the courtroom open and available to anyone who needs to use it. She said hearings can be postponed to allow interpreters to make arrangements to travel to Moab.

Page said her courthouse is fully accessible for people in wheelchairs and has technology to help those who are hard of hearing, either with assistive listening devices — headphones and microphones — or technology turning the spoken word into readable type.

However, Page said accommodating everyone can be difficult.

“We share the devices with neighboring courthouses in the district,” Page said. “And if we don’t have a warning a few days ahead it is almost impossible to get an interpreter on the spot.”

Toomer said the change process is slow and will only improve as communication and understanding of the ADA gets better. A goal both Toomer and Page agree with.