Advocacy: Which Disability Law Applies to You?

Jim O'Donnell
Jim O’Donnell

In addition to writing  on legal issues and hearing loss for the HLAA Boston website, attorney and advocate Jim O’Donnel serves on the HLAA Boston Chapter Steering Committee and helps to coordinate the chapter Speaker Series. In this post, Jim discusses the laws that are designed to protect the rights of people with disabilities.  A must read to file away for reference!

People with disabilities generally know they have rights and that they are violated when they are not treated like everyone else. But what laws apply in any given situation? Let’s take a look at some of them: the broadest and most commonly known one is the Americans with Disabilities Act- aka the ADA. (Note: Hearing loss is presumed a disability under sensory category.) ADA covers employment, local and state government, public transportation and public accommodations operated by private parties. There is also a section on telecommunications relay.

Discrimination in employment covers hiring, promotions and equal treatment in the workplace. Complaints in this area goes to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (federal). Massachusetts also has a Commission Against Discrimination that handles disability complaints. However, a person must be able to perform the essential functions of the position with or without accommodations; so an individual with a brain injury and slow processing could not be a police dispatcher, where speed and accuracy are essential, but he might be able to do another administrative job. Likewise, if the job is to make deliveries, the employer does not have to alter the delivery setup to allow one person to do it in a wheelchair, which prevents the service being performed in timely way. This is called “undue burden.

Local and state government is supposed to be totally accessible in services, locations and programs. There’s a loophole in the law’s language that requires that appropriate changes need only be made if within “reasonable accommodation.” This language is designed to reduce burdensome costs. We have discussed this recently about a person with hearing loss serving in a jury who was given assistive devices but needed CART. The Court system found it too difficult to schedule a CART reporter, given the variability in court calendars.

Public Transportation and Accommodations also require accessibility with the same “reasonable accommodation” flexibility. These cover an enormous number of places: restaurants, hotels, theaters, amusement parks, local coffee shops. You name it; it’s covered under this law.

People encounter lack of required accommodations often: flashing fire alarms in hotels missing, movie theaters that still don’t provide captions (AMC and Regal do), airport announcements over loudspeakers but not on a screen, and lack of looped public spaces are just some examples. That’s where advocacy comes in, and HLAA Boston is your advocate. You, too, canbe an advocate, with us ready to back you up.

ADA was passed into law in 1992 but before that, the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 was issued which created many of the definitions used in the ADA. The Rehab Act was designed to prohibit discrimination toward people with disabilities in federal agencies and where federal money provides assistance. So that includes contractors, schools, public and private, senior centers and community centers, and many other institutions. But with ADA now, do we need this? This law is important in many ways. For example, in public schools where a student has a disability but no education plan is called for, the student gets what’s called a 504 Plan for some accommodations. 504 is a reference to the Rehab Act that requires no one be denied access to services in an entity that receives federal financial assistance. The Rehab Act is a useful resource for individuals to get full accommodations for their disability.

There are several other laws to consider: Telecommunications Act, Fair Housing Act, Air Carrier Access Act, Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and more. We’ll go over these next time and then examine situations that we, people with hearing loss, encounter and which law might apply.