It’s a common story. I’m on an assignment, and my deaf consumer mentions in passing how he went to the doctor the other day. Out of curiosity I ask: “Did she provide an interpreter for you?” I already know the answer: “No.” The fact is, despite the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990, which requires places of business to provide accommodations for people with disabilities, deaf and hard of hearing people go without their accommodations (one of which is sign language interpreters), not only at doctor’s offices, but also lawyer’s offices, meetings with real estate agents, at job interviews, at public events, and so on.
Sure, it’s easy for interpreters and other hearing people to tell deaf people: “But it’s your right! You could sue!” But they’re not the deaf person who has a million other things going on in their life, which may include finding a job and feeding a family, and who, moreover, may be thinking, “What kind of relationship will I have with my doctor/prospective employer/etc. if I threaten to sue them, even if it is to demand my basic right?”
Thankfully, some deaf and hard of hearing people have stood up to fight. Bringing lawsuits and ADA complaints against places of business definitely works, but here we are, 12 years later, and people still struggle to get their accommodation. This is what led me to think: There must be a better way. There must be a way for businesses to happily provide an interpreter when one is requested, which is conducive to also having a good relationship with their deaf and hard of hearing consumers.
Like many other states, the Florida Legislature passed the Telecommunications Access System Act in 1991 to provide telecommunications services for people who are deaf and hard of hearing. This service is funded by a monthly surcharge billed to all telephone customers in the state. Thanks to this service, deaf people can conduct business over the phone, call family members, and make an emergency call when needed, just as a person who can hear does. This is the spirit of the ADA: to provide people with disabilities equal access.
While a solution has been implemented for equal access to telecommunications services, however, a gap has been left when it comes to equal access to community services.
My proposed solution is a surcharge added to the Local Business Tax Receipt (a.k.a. the county business license), or a similar vehicle, which will be used to fund the provision of sign language interpreters for community services. To my knowledge, no such service of this kind exists anywhere in the country, yet to every deaf person I come across and express the idea, the thought of hassle-free, equal access in the community excites them.
Here are some of the benefits:
- Interpreter agencies do not go out of business. The county fund is simply a way to pay for services; therefore, there is likely to be more business. The county may also hire freelance interpreters directly.
- Because there is a fund, there is also a way to get Deaf Interpreters on assignments when needed, instead of also having to fight for this.
- The fund could also be used for other types of accommodation, such as CART services.
- The fund may also be used, perhaps, to pay for training for hearing and deaf interpreters, to meet the demand.
- Government services, such as county hospitals, the Social Security Administration, etc., do not purchase business licenses, and therefore would follow their usual process for providing interpreters.
- Because anyone who purchases a business license would be contributing to the fund, then any place of business would be entitled to an interpreter for their consumers, even if they have fewer than 5 employees, or otherwise do not fall under ADA jurisdiction. (A lawyer might have to confirm this.)
- Also because there is a fund for interpreting services which businesses contribute to, businesses would not have to worry about the extra expense of providing interpreters to interview and train prospective deaf or hard of hearing employees, which opens up job opportunities for them. Note: there may have to be a cap on the number of hours per year that an interpreter is provided for training, meetings, etc. for deaf employees, before the place of business has to take over the cost.
I’m sure I’m too blinded by the benefits of this type of service model that I do not see clearly the negatives, besides the obvious surcharge to businesses. I think businesses, however, would rather pay a small fee and be covered whenever an interpreter is needed, than to be sued down the road. Regardless, whatever negatives there are, they should be resolved in order to keep the overarching two-pronged principle of this idea: (1) for deaf and hard of hearing people to no longer have to fight for a basic right, and (2) for places of business not to be burdened by unexpected expenses.
Please feel free to share and comment on this idea. I’m attaching a letter that I wrote to the Mayor of Miami-Dade County proposing this very idea, but which never received a response.