It’s not just the right thing to do. It’s federal law. Cities are responsible for communicating with all of their residents, including those with hearing, vision or speech disabilities.
The Americans with Disabilities Act prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities to ensure that they are afforded the same rights and opportunities as everyone else in all areas of public life. All local governments, regardless of size or number of employees, must comply with the ADA.
“One in five people has a disability,” said Kimberly Tissot, executive director of ABLE South Carolina, a nonprofit that provides an array of independent living services to people of all ages with all types of disabilities. “People with disabilities are the largest minority group in the U.S. It’s not difficult to accommodate them. We just have to be willing to do so.”
The S.C. Office on Aging has warned of South Carolina’s approaching “silver tsunami,” a dramatic increase in seniors. As a result, the number of residents likely to suffer diminished hearing and vision, is set to grow significantly.
The U.S. Department of Justice encourages local officials to be proactive in order to comply with the ADA. Public entities should have a general ADA nondiscrimination policy, and specific policies on service animals, effective communication and other ADA topics.
It is illegal to ask individuals about their disability or require them to provide medical papers. There also is no identification required for service animals, Tissot said. That has caused some conflict over what constitutes a legitimate service animal. Some fake, official-looking harnesses are available for purchase over the internet. However, enforcement can be difficult because the law does not require service animals to wear a harness or marked cloth.
The ADA states that service animals are working animals, not pets. The work or task a dog has been trained to provide must be directly related to the owner’s disability. Dogs whose sole function is to provide comfort or emotional support do not qualify as service animals under the law.
More effective communication and training are needed within the law enforcement and judicial systems, Tissot said. She said deficiencies in training and communication can result in tragedies, such as the incident last August when a North Carolina trooper fatally shot a deaf person. There is also the potential for a plaintiff in court to be denied rights because of an inability to understand or communicate during proceedings.
Although work remains to reach full compliance with the federal law, many cities are making progress to establish policies and procedures to enforce the ADA and see that everyone is treated equally, she said.
“Really good training is needed to comply with ADA,” Tissot said. Often that responsibility lies with an ADA coordinator, but many cities still do not have one, she said.
City of Greer officials made changes and put an ADA coordinator in place about a year and a half ago after an incident made them aware that they were lagging on accessibility. A visitor in a wheelchair could not get to a meeting room through the building’s accessible entrance after the door was accidentally locked.
“That one closed door, though it created a painful experience for our customer, has opened up many other doors,” said Ruthie Helms, City of Greer building official and ADA coordinator.
Helms immediately began inspecting signage, parking and accessibility to city buildings. She enlisted the help of ABLE to survey and evaluate city facilities. Once the sites were inspected, the city began the work of removing barriers to accessibility. They adopted an ADA policy and established grievance procedures.
Among other steps, Greer officials made their printed materials available in Braille and can arrange for interpreters to be available as needed. They altered council chambers and a kiosk in the lobby of City Hall that provides informative brochures accessible to someone in a wheelchair.
The lectern in council chambers previously provided for people to speak at meetings was not in compliance, so the city replaced it with a table and portable microphone.
“We’re headed in the right direction,” Helms said.
Some measures create ‘undue burden’ for cities
Cities and towns must offer auxiliary aids and services, unless doing so presents an undue financial or administrative burden.
An “undue burden” is defined as a significant difficulty or expense to a local government, according to the U.S. Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division, Disability Rights Section.
If accommodations do amount to an undue burden, the city must provide another effective aid or service, if possible, that wouldn’t impose an undue burden. The impact of changing economic conditions on city resources may also factor into whether a measure is deemed to be an undue burden.
In determining an undue burden, state and local government officials should consider the cost of the particular aid or service in light of all resources available to fund the program, service, or activity, and its anticipated effect on other expenses or operations. A high-level city official no lower than a department head should determine that a particular aid or service would create an undue burden. That decision should be made in a written statement detailing the reasons.
Under Section 508 of the ADA, agencies must give disabled employees and members of the public access to information that is comparable to access available to others. That includes adapting information on city websites. Greer officials worked to bring their site into compliance by taking steps like adding titles known as alt tags and captions to all images on the site. Many people with disabilities use assistive technology such as screen readers. Screen readers cannot interpret images unless there is text associated with them.
In the City of Anderson, officials makes every effort to follow Section 508 Standards and W3C Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, which are part of the international Web Accessibility Initiative.
“We are in the process of re-designing all of our websites using a content management system, so we’re still working through all that needs to be done to effectively meet those standards and guidelines,” Lee Boggs media manager for the City of Anderson said, adding that the city’s YouTube videos have closed-captioning.
“The new websites have or will have alt tags, section heads, proper markup, logical tab orders and other measures that help with accessibility. Those measures will take time to implement. However, if a user needs immediate assistance and finds that the content is inaccessible, we strongly encourage them to contact us,” said Boggs.
“We’ll do all that is possible to make the appropriate accommodations.”
The City of Charleston designed its website with a number of accessibility guidelines. The city chose an easily legible, standard font for use throughout the site. Whenever possible, live text is used instead of graphics to reduce the download time of pages and increase users’ control. All images and hyperlinks, where appropriate, have an alternative text attribute. This means when an image or hyperlink is conveying important information, an alternative text describes its content.
“Sometimes we need to get creative, do some puzzle solving,” said Janet Schumacher, ADA coordinator for the City of Charleston. “To simply discount the need for accessibility or say that it’s too expensive is not acceptable.”