On Jury Duty and Hearing Loss

old fashioned balance deviceOn Jury Duty and Hearing Loss — Jim O’Donnell

How can we create a balance in the courtroom for people with hearing loss?

A long-standing advocacy issue that often flies under the radar: serving on a jury with a hearing disability. Recently one of our steering committee members went through a very trying experience in a court case in Superior Court. She wants to serve but fears she won’t hear the necessary information and the equipment the court has is outdated. Her words describe the dilemma best after being called into a civil courtroom:

“The judge was clear and concise and I was happy this was a civil case and not criminal.  I wasn’t sure about hearing, but part of me still hoped that I might serve….I was offered attempts to find me amplification, and I had to explain that I did not need amplification as I was wearing two hearing aids.  I was given a pair of headphones on an old infrared assistive listening device and again explained that was not compatible with my hearing aids.  Another unfortunate factor was that I was serving in a very old courtroom which could not provide transcript, so there was nothing to go back to, nothing to read.  …I was placed by the judge closest to the witness stand (to help), but the lawyer stood five feet to my left and did most of the talking. I felt like I was watching a tennis match. …Despite all this, I will admit there were two instances that I felt I did not hear, but was not fast enough to respond with a need to repeat.”

So this person wanted to serve while the equipment they had lacked captions on videos, used personal talker for amplification in one place and infrared in another, neither of which provides clarity. Finally, she was able to introduce her own FM system and they pinned the microphone to the witnesses. As a responsible person, she felt badly that she missed any information.

I have served on two juries, one of which went to deliberations and similarly, I was given amplification. When I said I rely on lip reading, they placed me at the edge of the jury box to see the speakers. Still, I also missed some information.

About twelve years ago, the Commissioner of the Mass Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing and I, as Deputy Commissioner, met with the Jury Commissioner’s office on this very problem. The solution we presented was real time transcription (CART) guaranteed to make all communications within the courtroom clear. Their response was that the cost involved was high and CART was very difficult to schedule.

It’s time to bring up this issue again. I will send this report to the present Commissioner, Heidi Reed, and ask her help in getting the right assistive listening equipment in the courtrooms and CART. This time the administrative arm of the court system will need to be involved because it requires some spending to get this equipment and services. However, the amount is inexpensive and there is a compelling need to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Stay tuned for the next act and, meanwhile, send us your comments please: have you served on a jury? Were you able to get the accommodations you needed? Could you follow the proceedings? Did you miss any, much of the information?

Your experience can be very helpful in presenting the case to the Jury Commissioner and Court system. (Please send you comments to HLAABoston@gmail.com with the subject heading “Jury Duty/Hearing Loss.)