Oregon State Bar Bulletin — NOVEMBER 2015



Managing Your Practice

How Accessible Is Your Practice?
By Kathryn Kammer & Cheryl Coon



Most attorneys do not practice disability law. Nor do they have a practice that requires familiarity with the Americans with Disabilities Act (the “ADA”) or the numerous other federal, state and local laws and regulations that impact individuals with disabilities. But on a day-to-day basis, every attorney should keep in mind the barriers that may exist for their clients with disabilities and should be cognizant of ways in which they can make their professional services more accessible to the public in general. In fact, law firms have an obligation to do so as “places of public accommodation” under Title III of the ADA, 42 U.S.C. Section 12181 (7) (F).

For attorneys and law firms, opportunities to improve accessibility for their clients, employees and the community exist in a variety of ways, including: meetings and presentations for clients, other attorneys, and the community; design of law firm websites; and judicial and administrative agency appearances.

The Oregon State Bar Disability Law Section would like to share suggestions applicable to all practice areas to better accommodate the needs and functional limitations of employees, clients and the public.

Accessible Client Meetings

One typical problem for meetings with clients who have disabilities is a physical one: can clients actually get to a meeting? For these problems, the considerations to keep in mind include whether your office location is physically accessible. You should consider the dimensions of your elevator, the width of your doors with respect to accommodating wheelchairs, and if your office is not on the ground floor, how an individual with disabilities will enter your office. In addition, keep in mind that visitors will likely need use of a restroom and whether your restrooms are easy to enter and the stalls and sink easy to use.

Your next consideration will be how your clients’ limitations may affect their ability to review documents at your meeting. You should ensure that you have used a legible font and that documents have been printed with large enough text to be easily read. Allow the client extra time to look at the material before you begin talking about it.

Some clients may want or need to bring a person to assist with personal needs during the meeting. Make sure you understand the role of the support person — do not assume that the person is there to speak or act on behalf of the disabled person with whom he or she is working. Address all comments directly to the client and not his or her interpreter or assistant. Also, the arrangements you make in advance of the meeting should take into consideration logistical arrangements that include the support person (i.e., Does this additional person need parking arrangements? An extra chair at the table? A lunch that the caterer should know about?)

Speaking of interpreters, be aware that communications between an attorney and a client through an interpreter are privileged. See ORS 40.272. But you’ll need to ensure that the interpreter has the training and skill to convey legal and medical terms and complex legal topics, that the client is comfortable with the interpreter selected, and that the interpreter’s background does not pose issues for the client.

Best practices for communication through an interpreter provide that a family member should never be used to interpret. (The reality is that it often happens.) Other best practices include: speaking more slowly, not more loudly; speaking at an even pace in relatively short segments; insisting that everything you say, the client says, and that anyone else in the room says must be interpreted; and being aware that many concepts have no linguistic or conceptual equivalent in other languages. You should avoid highly idiomatic speech, long sentences or asking multiple questions at a time. Above all, be patient.

We also suggest that you be aware of your ethical obligations if your client has diminished capacity. Oregon RPC 1.14 states that “when a client’s capacity to make adequately considered decisions in connection with a representation is diminished …the lawyer shall, as far as reasonably possible, maintain a normal client-lawyer relationship with the client.”

Finally, if you are planning on a meeting via conference call, consider clarity and sound issues that may arise from that call and evaluate whether an in-person meeting would be preferable.

Accessible and Inclusive Outside Presentations

You may be planning an event that will be held outside of your law firm office. You will want to select a venue with good lighting and an absence of distractions. Consider whether the venue and audience are large enough for a sound system and a microphone and if so, remember to repeat each question that is asked by audience members in any open forum. As the planner, it’s your responsibility to remind presenters to consider these issues as well. You will want to build in frequent breaks, and make sure that breaks are long enough to allow meeting attendees to move from room to room or take care of medical needs. Once you’ve developed a schedule, keep to it and inform people of any time changes. If you are planning to have breakout sessions during which attendees change locations, consider how that may create difficulties for individuals with mobility impairments.

The manner of presentation can be more or less accessible. For example, the popular alternative to Power Points, the Prezi, is currently not considered to be an accessible format. If a PowerPoint or other presentation software will be used, consider how the format will impact the ability of the audience to follow. Providing handouts before you begin your presentation will enable attendees to have time to review information, to be prepared for the presentation and know what is being discussed. For example, it is not always possible for a person with a hearing impairment to both read text and watch an interpreter signing.

The design of materials can also affect accessibility. Best practices include: avoiding cluttered slides (limit each slide to six lines of text with five or six words per line); using left justification, clear font types (e.g., Arial and Verdana) and large text size; mixing upper and lowercase letters rather than using all capitals; underlining for emphasis instead of using italics; ensuring good color contrast between the background and foreground; keeping figures and graphs as simple as possible; explaining all nontext elements orally; explicitly mentioning the region of interest on the slide (do not just point to it or use vague words such as this and that); replacing graphics with text whenever possible; and avoiding automatic, complex or animated slide transitions.

Law Firm Websites Designed with Accessibility in Mind

The ability to provide accessible design for websites is an emerging field. In designing the website for our section, we followed these best practices: design the site so that navigation bars are simple and easy to follow; address mobility and dexterity impairments by designing the site to have enlarged clickable areas or to be navigated from the keyboard; and use tools to make your site more visually accessible — for example, include enlarged text, clear fonts and contrasting colors.

Accessibility Issues for Judicial and Agency Appearances

Whether you appear in court or before agency tribunals, you may encounter clients, the public or decision makers who require you to consider accessibility. Best practices include: speaking clearly and not too fast; using a pace slightly slower than normal conversation; using simple language; avoiding or where necessary explaining jargon, acronyms and idioms; speaking directly to the audience so they can see your face while you are speaking; and using only media clips that are captioned (unless you can provide a transcript simultaneously).

You may need to consider whether a witness with a disability needs to have someone other than a lawyer present at, for example, a deposition, to make the environment less intimidating. Some individuals with intellectual or developmental disabilities may have a built-in bias to agree with suggestions, including those that could arise in cross-examination in a trial or deposition. Consider whether it is necessary to request as an accommodation an order that the interrogating lawyer may not use leading questions or questions suggesting the answer. Finally, don’t forget that there may be tools available at the facility where your appearance is being held, including courthouses, that have audio and visual aids available for courtroom users upon request.

Following these suggestions not only will help you better serve the needs of your disabled clients; it also will enable the legal profession to reach a broader audience and take the lead in recognizing the diversity of our community. It’s an appropriate role for all of us to assume.

For more information on the OSB Disability Law Section, visit https://disabilitylaw.osbar.org/section.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Cheryl Coon chairs the OSB Disability Law Section. She leads the Social Security disability section of Swanson, Thomas, Coon & Newton of Portland, representing disabled individuals seeking benefits, at all stages of the process from application to federal court appeals.

Katie Kammer is the chair-elect of the Disability Law Section and practices at Miller Nash Graham & Dunn, where she specializes in employment and education law. She regularly advises both public and private employers on personnel issues and disability accommodation and conducts trainings on various employment law issues. She also represents K-12 and higher education institutions and advises on a range of regulatory compliance issues.

© 2015 Kathryn Kammer & Cheryl Coon

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