by Richard M. Hunt and Jeanne M. Huey
Is that table in the conference room where you put the coffee no more than 36 inches high with sufficient clearance for a person in a wheelchair to approach it? Is there room for a wheelchair at the conference table? Is your firm’s website WCAG 2.0 Level AA compliant? Has your receptionist been trained to accept TTY and TRS calls and deal with a client’s miniature horse? If the answer to any of these questions is “no,” you need to look at ADA compliance.
You may think your private firm is a private place, but if you have a website, a front door, or a telephone line, you are open to the public and must meet the requirements of the ADA. This means your firm must be physically accessible, be willing to modify its policies to accommodate disabled guests, be willing to provide auxiliary aids and services to clients and potential clients, and, finally, must have an accessible website. The requirements are complex, but the common problems are easy to identify.
Physical accessibility problems in law firms depend on where the firm has its offices. If you are in a modern office building it is likely that restrooms, doorways, and halls were designed to meet ADA standards. Your problems will come from using furnishings that do not meet ADA requirements or leaving clutter that makes accessibility difficult. For lawyers with offices in older buildings, especially old houses, front steps, lack of accessible parking, and non-accessible restrooms are likely issues. Contrary to popular belief there is no grandfathering under the ADA. The “readily achievable” standard for older buildings requires compliance with current ADA standards in almost every case, and proving an exception usually costs more than the cost of compliance.
An equally serious problem for many firms will be dealing with hearing impairments. Many deaf individuals use relay services to place phone calls, and these calls can sound very much like the kind of scam call you or your receptionist may not want to deal with. Failing to recognize this kind of incoming call will violate the ADA. Your firm also has an obligation to provide auxiliary aids and services, including sign language interpretation, at the firm’s expense. If you have not already identified resources for communicating with deaf clients and visitors, the time is now, before the need arises and someone files suit.
Dealing with hearing and vision impaired clients or guests may present other challenges as well. Many of our interactions with clients assume the client can easily read documents or memoranda. Software solutions will make electronic documents accessible if they are properly prepared, but proper preparation is required. If a blind client is required to review paper documents, some kind of additional accommodation may be required, again at the firm’s expense.
Service dogs and miniature horses may challenge law firm receptionists and attorneys, because a firm must be willing to accommodate these animals when they are needed by disabled clients or visitors. Law firms are less likely to encounter problems than restaurants and retail stores, but it is not hard to imagine the consternation a client accompanied by a miniature horse might create.
Last, but certainly not least, are problems with your firm’s website. The Department of Justice believes that the ADA requires accessible websites, and private law firms have started suing all kinds of businesses with websites that are hard to use for blind, deaf, or mobility impaired individuals. Right now the de facto standard is the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines version 2.0 at success level AA. Unless every page of your website meets this standard, it will certainly be the position of the Department of Justice and private plaintiffs that you are violating the ADA.
In some cases existing ethical standards anticipate the ADA’s communication requirements. Rules like 1.02(b), 1.03, and 7.02 require effective communication. Comment 5 to Rule 1.03 specifically addresses disabled clients, and though it is primarily directed at those with intellectual limitations, the principle will apply to all clients. A failure to provide the tools necessary for effective communication may well violate not only the ADA but also the Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct.
Making legal services accessible to the disabled is requirement of our professional standards as well as federal and state law. If your firm has not already reviewed its ADA compliance the time is now.