Question of the Month: Do legislatures provide sign-language interpreter services, including services needed by legislators in their work with constituents?

Most Midwestern legislatures provide sign-language interpreter services and/or closed captioning in order for the deaf and hearing-impaired to follow and take part in legislative activities such as committee hearings, floor debates and State of the State addresses.
To comply with state law and/or the federal American with Disabilities Act — Title II of which forbids discrimination by any public entity — many legislatures also provide these services for meetings between individual legislators and constituents, provided these services are requested in advance.

In a recent CSG Midwest survey of legislative staff from the region, some states reported having no formal policies in place — either because a request for services has not been made or because the request is simply handled as it arises.

Arrangements can be made for American Sign Language services for a citizen who is deaf, hard of hearing, or deaf-blind in order to allow them to:
  • meet with a legislator or legislative staff (a “meeting” includes events at which a legislator is speaking and where there is a defined need of a citizen in attendance) and
  • attend a legislative committee hearing (view or participate) or view a House or Senate floor session.
Nebraska provides interpreters (upon request) for committee meetings as well as for proceedings of the full Unicameral Legislature. Requests for interpreters are typically handled through the Nebraska Commission for the Deaf and Hearing Impaired, which secures an interpreter for meetings between a legislator and a constituent. Plans also are afoot in that state to provide closed captioning to allow the deaf and hearing-impaired to follow debate on the floor of the Legislature.
The state of Michigan’s Deaf Persons’ Interpreters Act has been in place since 1982. While this law principally addresses interactions with courts and law enforcement authorities, it also requires “an appointing authority, other than a court” to provide qualified interpreters if needed. Legislative staff has been reviewing the law to determine its applicability to the Legislature.
In Indiana, the state tries to provide a signer or interpreter for deaf or hearing-impaired persons for floor debates, committee meetings, scheduled conference committee meetings, interim study committee meetings and meetings with legislators. It asks, however, that people make such requests for services at least two weeks in advance.
The National Association of the Deaf recommends that state legislatures take a number of steps to improve accessibility, including:
  • providing closed captioning for live broadcasts (and reruns) of legislative activities,
  • authorizing the purchase of portable assistive listening systems,
  • adopting a written policy that corresponds with state and federal disability laws,
  • making legislators and legislative staff better aware of state and federal disability laws and the services available to persons with disabilities, and
  • periodically reviewing activities and facilities to ensure compliance with disability laws and, if necessary, taking corrective actions to improve accessibility for deaf and hard-of-hearing constituents.
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Stateline Midwest: November 20163.45 MB