On January 3rd the Justice Department announced a settlement that reminds professionals of our obligation under the ADA to be prepared to communicate with clients and others who may want to sue our services. The settlement involved a law firm with a debt collection practice. (The full text of the settlement is at http://www.ada.gov/peroutka_sa.htm). When deaf or hearing impaired debtors called to discuss their cases using telephone relay services (TRS) the firm’s employees directed the debtors to call back when a manager was available. This differential treatment violated Title III of the ADA. The firm ultimately agreed to pay $30,000 to the complaining parties and revise its procedures.
The settlement serves as a good reminder to law firms and other professional firms that we too are public accommodations subject to all of the requirements of the ADA, including those concerning communication. Physical accessibility for those with mobility disabilities is in some ways old news, but accessibility for those with communications disabilities is equally required by the law. Firms whose practices are not consumer oriented may believe that because they deal mostly with clients who have existing relationships this kind of problem will not occur. However, the fact that a call from from a hearing impaired potential client is unlikely does not diminish the obligation of the firm to be prepared to take it. Firms with consumer oriented practices, whether or not they are in the debt collection business, must be especially attentive to making their services accessible to those with vision and hearing impairments because the risk of a complaint is greater. As more and more services are provided in contexts that do not require physical contact, communication accessibility will be increasingly important to professionals and other businesses both as a service to clients and because the law requires it.