Does the ADA require businesses to communicate differently with customers with disabilities?

Communicating effectively and successfully with customers is an important part of doing business. Sometimes businesses aren’t sure how to communicate with customers who are blind or have low vision, those who are deaf or hard of hearing, or those who have speech disabilities. The ADA requires businesses to communicate effectively with customers with vision, hearing, and speech disabilities.

Because the nature and complexity of communication differs, depending on the type of business, the rules allow for flexibility. A person who is consulting with a lawyer, completing a loan application at a bank, or going to an emergency center, will need a different level of communication than if the person is picking up dry cleaning, purchasing a meal at a restaurant, or making a cash withdrawal at a bank.

The goal of the effective communication provisions of the ADA is to find practical solutions for communicating effectively that work in specific situations. For example, if a person who is deaf is looking for a particular item at a store, exchanging written notes with a clerk may be effective communication. So for many businesses, exchanging written notes might be all that’s ever required for effective communication. But for a lot of businesses, it will depend on the kind of communication that’s taking place. If a person who is deaf goes to a bank to deposit a check, the nature of the communication is different than when the same person is completing a mortgage application. If a person who is deaf is going to the doctor to get a flu shot, the complexity of the communication is different than when the same person is going to the doctor to discuss medical test results and treatment options.

Do the ADA rules about effective communication apply to state and local governments, too?

Yes. And the examples above are also applicable in terms of flexibility, depending on the importance and complexity of the communication. If a person who is deaf is going to City Hall to pay a water bill, effective communication may likely be attained with written notes. But if the same person wants to speak at a town hall meeting about a proposal to raise water rates, the written notes would likely not be effective.

When does a business have to provide a sign language interpreter under the ADA?

Remember that the ADA requires that people with disabilities be provided with effective communication. So, if a person needs a sign language interpreter in order for communication to be effective, then that’s when it must be provided.  Effective communication would likely require a sign language or oral interpreter when, because of the nature, length, and complexity of the conversation, other means of communicating would not be effective. Providing an interpreter guarantees that both parties will understand what is being said. The revised regulations permit the use of new technologies, including video remote interpreting (VRI), a service that allows businesses that have video conference equipment to access an interpreter at another location, rather than having an interpreter be physically present.

Of course, if providing a sign language interpreter would be an undue financial or administrative burden, then it may be permissible for the entity to look at other ways of providing effective communication. The ADA does not guarantee a particular right to a sign language interpreter, but rather, to effective communication. Effective communication is not always achieved in the same way, even for the same person, as explained in the first question of this chapter.

What kinds of businesses have to provide me with a sign language interpreter if I need one for effective communication?

There may be many different situations in which a sign language interpreter would need to be provided by a place of public accommodation, but the most common situations are those in which the person who is deaf is meeting with a lawyer, a doctor, or another professional, such as a financial planner. Interactions with people in these professions usually require the person who is seeking information to get detailed, often technical, information that can affect legal rights, financial status, or health. So there may be greater emphasis on the provision of truly effective communication in these situations.

How are 911 calls made accessible to people with speech or hearing disabilities?

Such individuals must have direct access to 911 systems. Emergency centers have to be able to get calls from TDD/TTY and computer modem users without relying on third parties or state relay services. Operators must be trained to recognize, and quickly respond to, a TDD/TTY call.

Is there flexibility in providing effective communication to people who are blind or have low vision?

Yes. What is required for effective communication is always somewhat flexible by its very nature because of the different communication needs of people with disabilities in different situations that require effective communication. When ordering at a restaurant, for example, Braille menus are not required, as long as the restaurant provides menus on tape or digital formats, or a person who can read the menu to the customer. In a store, if a person cannot read a label, the clerk can read the label to the customer, rather than providing it in an alternate format. If a person who is blind is going to sign important estate documents at a lawyer’s office, or sales contracts at a real estate office, then it may be effective communication to email an electronic version of the documents so the person can use screen-reading technology to read the paperwork in advance.


This page contains information provided by The ADA National Network Disability Law Handbook created by Jacquie Brennan Southwest ADA Center.