Hearing impaired people don’t have to give up the right to hear what is being said in open government meetings or open court sessions.
State and federal laws make this right clear.
Roger Elliott, a hearing-impaired person (and former candidate for Wilkes County commissioner) had this in mind when he raised the issue with representatives of the North Wilkesboro and Wilkes County governing bodies and state court system in Wilkes last month.
Elliott was in Wilkes District Court as the plaintiff in a civil case in late December when his hearing aid batteries died. The judge let Elliott get fresh batteries from home, but then ruled that he failed to prove his claim and dismissed the case.
Elliott told Wilkes Clerk of Superior Court Regina Billings that if there had been a hearing device for him in the courtroom, he and the judge would have communicated better and his case wouldn’t have been dismissed.
Billings said Elliott first brought his concern to County Manager John Yates and Yates sent him to her to make sure the courtrooms met Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requirements.
Corrine Lusic, an attorney with the N.C. Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC), told Billings via email that the ADA requires that courtrooms have equally effective communication for disabled people. Lusic said that under state law, county government is responsible for providing courtrooms with assistive listening systems.
Lusic said an important point is whether Elliott indicated he needed an assistive hearing device before, during or after the court proceeding. “If we knew that Mr. Elliot wasn’t able to hear or communicate with the judge effectively, then I have some concerns that his case was dismissed without proactively offering to provide an assistive device. If ineffective communication wasn’t obvious during the hearing and Mr. Elliot didn’t otherwise tell us that he was unable to communicate or request an assistive listening device, then I am not concerned about the dismissal,” said Lusic.
Billings said a court transcript showed that Elliott didn’t indicate his difficulty hearing until he said his hearing aid batteries had died.
Lusic also told Billings to contact Yates about getting assistive hearing devices in the courtrooms if they didn’t already have them. Yates said the matter is under evaluation and would be discussed with County Attorney Tony Triplett.
Meanwhile, the local courtrooms don’t have anything to help people who are hearing impaired and that’s wrong, regardless of who is responsible for them being there.
To county government’s credit, a wireless headphone system was purchased last month for nearly $300 for the county commissioners’ meeting room to be available at all times for hearing impaired people. It connects to the room’s sound system.
This was done after Elliott raised concern about the room’s lack of provisions for hearing impaired people.
The Wilkesboro and North Wilkesboro governing body meeting rooms aren’t equipped with assistive listening devices, but spokesmen for both governments said needs of hearing impaired people will be addressed whenever advance notice is given.
They said these and other reasonable accommodations must be provided when disabled people need them to participate in public meetings.
Spokesmen for the two governments also said their staff were already taking steps to improve ADA compliance when Elliott raised his concerns.
The two governing body meeting rooms should already have assistive listening devices, such as wireless headphones, even if their immediate availability isn’t required. Signs announcing availability of these accommodations should be posted at entrances to the meeting rooms.
These are tiny financial investments to make compared to the advantages of having such accommodations always available for hearing impaired people.