The Florida Bar

Florida Bar News

Program teaches lawyers how to accommodate deaf clients

Senior Editor Regular News

Program teaches lawyers how to accommodate deaf clients

Senior Editor

What would you do if a deaf person wanted to hire you as a lawyer?

Tell the deaf person to bring a friend or family member who can help interpret — even though the legal issue is deeply personal and confidential?

SHARON CASERTA, left, and her assistant Christine Stevens, signing. Caserta hopes lawyers will take less than a half hour to demystify dealing with deaf clients, so ignorance of the law is never again used as an excuse to discriminate. Offer to communicate by writing everything down on paper — even though that would take so much more time that you’ll just bill extra to the client?

Say you don’t handle that kind of case — even though that’s a lie?

Tell the prospective client it’s his or her responsibility to hire an American Sign Language interpreter — because that’s not your problem?

Sharon Caserta, with the Deaf/Hard of Hearing Legal Advocacy Program at Jacksonville Area Legal Aid, Inc., where she represents 40 clients, has heard every excuse.

“I constantly see this problem, and it’s unfortunate to see lawyers around the state doing this to deaf clients, and many have meritorious cases,” Caserta said.

“I think Florida has a long way to go. Deaf people will call me across the state saying, ‘My attorney won’t provide me with an interpreter.’ And they’re in the middle of doing interrogatories. Many are afraid to complain, because they are afraid their attorney will withdraw from the case.”

Caserta explains lawyers not only have a professional obligation, but a legal obligation to accommodate deaf, hard-of-hearing, and deaf/blind clients under Title II and Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

To help educate lawyers on the law, Caserta secured a $14,000 administration of justice grant from The Florida Bar Foundation and wrote the script to an online CLE titled, “The Americans with Disabilities Act: How to Protect Your Deaf, Hard-of-hearing or Deaf/Blind Client (and Yourself).”

It’s free of charge, the video lasts 29 minutes, and 0.5 CLE credits have been approved, which may be applied toward the ethics requirement. It is course no. 81151, available online in the Bar’s 24/7 On-Demand CLE catalog.

First, a vignette that lays bare misunderstandings about what is required of lawyers when a deaf client comes calling.

Then, Robert Mather, a senior trial attorney at the Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division, and Disability Rights Section, in Washington, D.C., says: “What you have just seen is a common occurrence in Florida and in other states: Licensed attorneys violating the Americans with Disabilities Act by failing or refusing to communicate effectively with clients who are deaf, hard-of-hearing, or deaf/blind.”

Mather, who is deaf, explains that lawyers’ offices are covered by the 1990 ADA, “regardless of the size of your firm, even if you have fewer than 15 employees, and regardless of the type of law you practice, whether civil or criminal.

“Lawyers have an obligation to ensure they provide effective communication to clients with disabilities. You may be wondering what the term ‘effective communication’ means.. . . The law is clear that effective means effective both ways: from the client to the lawyer and from the lawyer to the client.

“Although an attorney may think something will be effective, it does not mean it will be effective for that client. The best way to know what is effective for a client is simply to ask.”

The course demonstrates effective communication techniques and available technology to make firms accessible.

It ends with two deaf clients sharing their personal stories of discrimination by attorneys.

Enforcing the ADA law is the problem, Caserta said.

“Enforcement of the law is done through private lawsuits,” she said. “That would be a very embarrassing lawsuit for lawyers.”

She hopes lawyers will take less than a half hour to demystify dealing with deaf clients, so ignorance of the law is never again used as an excuse to discriminate.

News in Photos