ADA Requirements: Effective Communication
The Department of Justice published revised final regulations implementing the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) for title II (State and local government services) and title III (public accommodations and commercial facilities) on September 15, 2010, in the Federal Register. These requirements, or rules, clarify and refine issues that have arisen over the past 20 years and contain new, and updated, requirements, including the 2010 Standards for Accessible Design (2010 Standards).
People who have vision, hearing, or speech disabilities (“communication disabilities”) use different ways to communicate. For example, people who are blind may give and receive information audibly rather than in writing and people who are deaf may give and receive information through writing or sign language rather than through speech.
The ADA requires that title II entities (State and local governments) and title III entities (businesses and nonprofit organizations that serve the public) communicate effectively with people who have communication disabilities. The goal is to ensure that communication with people with these disabilities is equally effective as communication with people without disabilities.
This publication is designed to help title II and title III entities (“covered entities”) understand how the rules for effective communication, including rules that went into effect on March 15, 2011, apply to them.
- The purpose of the effective communication rules is to ensure that the person with a vision, hearing, or speech disability can communicate with, receive information from, and convey information to, the covered entity.
- Covered entities must provide auxiliary aids and services when needed to communicate effectively with people who have communication disabilities.
- The key to communicating effectively is to consider the nature, length, complexity, and context of the communication and the person’s normal method(s) of communication.
- The rules apply to communicating with the person who is receiving the covered entity’s goods or services as well as with that person’s parent, spouse, or companion in appropriate circumstances.
Auxiliary Aids and Services
The ADA uses the term “auxiliary aids and services” (“aids and services”) to refer to the ways to communicate with people who have communication disabilities.
- For people who are blind, have vision loss, or are deaf-blind, this includes providing a qualified reader; information in large print, Braille, or electronically for use with a computer screen-reading program; or an audio recording of printed information. A “qualified” reader means someone who is able to read effectively, accurately, and impartially, using any necessary specialized vocabulary.
- For people who are deaf, have hearing loss, or are deaf-blind, this includes providing a qualified notetaker; a qualified sign language interpreter, oral interpreter, cued-speech interpreter, or tactile interpreter; real-time captioning; written materials; or a printed script of a stock speech (such as given on a museum or historic house tour). A “qualified” interpreter means someone who is able to interpret effectively, accurately, and impartially, both receptively (i.e., understanding what the person with the disability is saying) and expressively (i.e., having the skill needed to convey information back to that person) using any necessary specialized vocabulary.
- For people who have speech disabilities, this may include providing a qualified speech-to-speech transliterator (a person trained to recognize unclear speech and repeat it clearly) , especially if the person will be speaking at length, such as giving testimony in court, or just taking more time to communicate with someone who uses a communication board. In some situations, keeping paper and pencil on hand so the person can write out words that staff cannot understand or simply allowing more time to communicate with someone who uses a communication board or device may provide effective communication. Staff should always listen attentively and not be afraid or embarrassed to ask the person to repeat a word or phrase they do not understand.
In addition, aids and services include a wide variety of technologies including 1) assistive listening systems and devices; 2) open captioning, closed captioning, real-time captioning, and closed caption decoders and devices; 3) telephone handset amplifiers, hearing-aid compatible telephones, text telephones (TTYs) , videophones, captioned telephones, and other voice, text, and video-based telecommunications products; 4) videotext displays; 5) screen reader software, magnification software, and optical readers; 6) video description and secondary auditory programming (SAP) devices that pick up video-described audio feeds for television programs; 7) accessibility features in electronic documents and other electronic and information technology that is accessible (either independently or through assistive technology such as screen readers).
Real-time captioning (also known as computer-assisted real-time transcription, or CART) is a service similar to court reporting in which a transcriber types what is being said at a meeting or event into a computer that projects the words onto a screen. This service, which can be provided on-site or remotely, is particularly useful for people who are deaf or have hearing loss but do not use sign language.
The free nationwide telecommunications relay service (TRS), reached by calling 7-1-1, uses communications assistants (also called CAs or relay operators) who serve as intermediaries between people who have hearing or speech disabilities who use a text telephone (TTY) or text messaging and people who use standard voice telephones. The communications assistant tells the telephone user what the other party is typing and types to tell the other party what the telephone user is saying. TRS also provides speech-to-speech transliteration for callers who have speech disabilities.
Video relay service (VRS) is a free, subscriber-based service for people who use sign language and have videophones, smart phones, or computers with video communication capabilities. For outgoing calls, the subscriber contacts the VRS interpreter, who places the call and serves as an intermediary between the subscriber and a person who uses a standard voice telephone. The interpreter tells the telephone user what the subscriber is signing and signs to the subscriber what the telephone user is saying.
Video remote interpreting (VRI) is a fee-based service that uses video conferencing technology to access an off-site interpreter to provide real-time sign language or oral interpreting services for conversations between hearing people and people who are deaf or have hearing loss. The new regulations give covered entities the choice of using VRI or on-site interpreters in situations where either would be effective. VRI can be especially useful in rural areas where on-site interpreters may be difficult to obtain. Additionally, there may be some cost advantages in using VRI in certain circumstances. However, VRI will not be effective in all circumstances. For example, it will not be effective if the person who needs the interpreter has difficulty seeing the screen (either because of vision loss or because he or she cannot be properly positioned to see the screen, because of an injury or other condition). In these circumstances, an on-site interpreter may be required.
If VRI is chosen, all of the following specific performance standards must be met:
- real-time, full-motion video and audio over a dedicated high-speed, wide-bandwidth video connection or wireless connection that delivers high-quality video images that do not produce lags, choppy, blurry, or grainy images, or irregular pauses in communication;
- a sharply delineated image that is large enough to display the interpreter’s face, arms, hands, and fingers, and the face, arms, hands, and fingers of the person using sign language, regardless of his or her body position;
- a clear, audible transmission of voices; and
- adequate staff training to ensure quick set-up and proper operation.
Many deaf-blind individuals use support service providers (SSPs) to assist them in accessing the world around them. SSPs are not “aids and services” under the ADA. However, they provide mobility, orientation, and informal communication services for deaf-blind individuals and are a critically important link enabling them to independently access the community at large.
Effective Communication Provisions
Covered entities must provide aids and services when needed to communicate effectively with people who have communication disabilities.
The key to deciding what aid or service is needed to communicate effectively is to consider the nature, length, complexity, and context of the communication as well as the person’s normal method(s) of communication.
Some easy solutions work in relatively simple and straightforward situations. For example:
- In a lunchroom or restaurant, reading the menu to a person who is blind allows that person to decide what dish to order.
- In a retail setting, pointing to product information or writing notes back and forth to answer simple questions about a product may allow a person who is deaf to decide whether to purchase the product.
Other solutions may be needed where the information being communicated is more extensive or complex. For example:
- In a law firm, providing an accessible electronic copy of a legal document that is being drafted for a client who is blind allows the client to read the draft at home using a computer screen-reading program.
- In a doctor’s office, an interpreter generally will be needed for taking the medical history of a patient who uses sign language or for discussing a serious diagnosis and its treatment options.
A person’s method(s) of communication are also key. For example, sign language interpreters are effective only for people who use sign language. Other methods of communication, such as those described above, are needed for people who may have lost their hearing later in life and do not use sign language. Similarly, Braille is effective only for people who read Braille. Other methods are needed for people with vision disabilities who do not read Braille, such as providing accessible electronic text documents, forms, etc., that can be accessed by the person’s screen reader program.
Covered entities are also required to accept telephone calls placed through TRS and VRS, and staff who answer the telephone must treat relay calls just like other calls. The communications assistant will explain how the system works if necessary.
Remember, the purpose of the effective communication rules is to ensure that the person with a communication disability can receive information from, and convey information to, the covered entity.
In many situations, covered entities communicate with someone other than the person who is receiving their goods or services. For example, school staff usually talk to a parent about a child’s progress; hospital staff often talk to a patient’s spouse, other relative, or friend about the patient’s condition or prognosis. The rules refer to such people as “companions” and require covered entities to provide effective communication for companions who have communication disabilities.
The term “companion” includes any family member, friend, or associate of a person seeking or receiving an entity’s goods or services who is an appropriate person with whom the entity should communicate.
Use of Accompanying Adults or Children as Interpreters
Historically, many covered entities have expected a person who uses sign language to bring a family member or friend to interpret for him or her. These people often lacked the impartiality and specialized vocabulary needed to interpret effectively and accurately. It was particularly problematic to use people’s children as interpreters.
The ADA places responsibility for providing effective communication, including the use of interpreters, directly on covered entities. They cannot require a person to bring someone to interpret for him or her. A covered entity can rely on a companion to interpret in only two situations.
- In an emergency involving an imminent threat to the safety or welfare of an individual or the public, an adult or minor child accompanying a person who uses sign language may be relied upon to interpret or facilitate communication only when a qualified interpreter is not available.
- In situations not involving an imminent threat, an adult accompanying someone who uses sign language may be relied upon to interpret or facilitate communication when a) the individual requests this, b) the accompanying adult agrees, and c) reliance on the accompanying adult is appropriate under the circumstances. This exception does not apply to minor children.
Even under exception (2) , covered entities may not rely on an accompanying adult to interpret when there is reason to doubt the person’s impartiality or effectiveness. For example:
- It would be inappropriate to rely on a companion to interpret who feels conflicted about communicating bad news to the person or has a personal stake in the outcome of a situation.
- When responding to a call alleging spousal abuse, police should never rely on one spouse to interpret for the other spouse.
Who Decides Which Aid or Service Is Needed?
When choosing an aid or service, title II entities are required to give primary consideration to the choice of aid or service requested by the person who has a communication disability. The state or local government must honor the person’s choice, unless it can demonstrate that another equally effective means of communication is available, or that the use of the means chosen would result in a fundamental alteration or in an undue burden (see limitations below). If the choice expressed by the person with a disability would result in an undue burden or a fundamental alteration, the public entity still has an obligation to provide an alternative aid or service that provides effective communication if one is available.
Title III entities are encouraged to consult with the person with a disability to discuss what aid or service is appropriate. The goal is to provide an aid or service that will be effective, given the nature of what is being communicated and the person’s method of communicating.
Covered entities may require reasonable advance notice from people requesting aids or services, based on the length of time needed to acquire the aid or service, but may not impose excessive advance notice requirements. “Walk-in” requests for aids and services must also be honored to the extent possible.
Covered entities are required to provide aids and services unless doing so would result in an “undue burden,” which is defined as significant difficulty or expense. If a particular aid or service would result in an undue burden, the entity must provide another effective aid or service, if possible, that would not result in an undue burden. Determining what constitutes an undue burden will vary from entity to entity and sometimes from one year to the next. The impact of changing economic conditions on the resources available to an entity may also be taken into consideration in making this determination.
State and local governments: in determining whether a particular aid or service would result in undue financial and administrative burdens, a title II entity should take into consideration the cost of the particular aid or service in light of all resources available to fund the program, service, or activity and the effect on other expenses or operations. The decision that a particular aid or service would result in an undue burden must be made by a high level official, no lower than a Department head, and must include a written statement of the reasons for reaching that conclusion.
Businesses and nonprofits: in determining whether a particular aid or service would result in an undue burden, a title III entity should take into consideration the nature and cost of the aid or service relative to their size, overall financial resources, and overall expenses. In general, a business or nonprofit with greater resources is expected to do more to ensure effective communication than one with fewer resources. If the entity has a parent company, the administrative and financial relationship, as well as the size, resources, and expenses of the parent company, would also be considered.
In addition, covered entities are not required to provide any particular aid or service in those rare circumstances where it would fundamentally alter the nature of the goods or services they provide to the public. In the performing arts, for example, slowing down the action on stage in order to describe the action for patrons who are blind or have vision loss may fundamentally alter the nature of a play or dance performance.
A critical and often overlooked component of ensuring success is comprehensive and ongoing staff training. Covered entities may have established good policies, but if front line staff are not aware of them or do not know how to implement them, problems can arise. Covered entities should teach staff about the ADA’s requirements for communicating effectively with people who have communication disabilities. Many local disability organizations, including Centers for Independent Living, conduct ADA trainings in their communities. The Department’s ADA Information Line can provide local contact information for these organizations.
For more information about the ADA, please visit ADA.gov or call our toll-free number.
ADA Information Line 800-514-0301 (Voice) and 1-833-610-1264 (TTY) M-W, F 9:30 a.m. – 12:00 p.m. and 3:00 p.m. - 5:30 p.m., Th 2:30 p.m. – 5:30 p.m. (Eastern Time) to speak with an ADA Specialist. Calls are confidential.
For people with disabilities, this publication is available in alternate formats.
The Americans with Disabilities Act authorizes the Department of Justice (the Department) to provide technical assistance to individuals and entities that have rights or responsibilities under the Act. This document provides informal guidance to assist you in understanding the ADA and the Department’s regulations.
This guidance document is not intended to be a final agency action, has no legally binding effect, and may be rescinded or modified in the Department’s complete discretion, in accordance with applicable laws. The Department’s guidance documents, including this guidance, do not establish legally enforceable responsibilities beyond what is required by the terms of the applicable statutes, regulations, or binding judicial precedent.
Duplication of this document is encouraged.