Access to justice is vitally important. Without it, individuals are unable to have their voices heard, exercise their rights, challenge discrimination, or hold decision-makers accountable.
For Mainers who are deaf, access to justice includes the elimination of communication barriers when attempting to obtain legal services and representation.
Attorneys have a responsibility to provide deaf clients with accommodations that they may need to communicate. For nearly 30 years, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) has required public accommodations, including attorneys engaged in private practice, to provide equal access to their services. This includes providing sign language interpreters, real-time captioning, or other auxiliary aids and services necessary to ensure effective communication with clients who are deaf.
Maine, unlike most states, opted for several years to provide funding for free interpreters for private attorneys. The Legal Interpreter Fund was available to private lawyers and advocates who could use the fund to pay for qualified sign language interpreters or real-time captioning services to meet with deaf clients. This funding was unique. Hospitals, doctor’s offices, and other professionals, in contrast, have long been expected to meet their equal access obligations on their own.
Recently, the Legal Interpreter Fund was repealed in the Governor’s budget. After learning of the repeal of the fund, the Division for the Deaf, Hard of Hearing and Late Deafened, together with DRM, announced the change to the public. The announcement acknowledged the misunderstandings regarding equal access obligations that the Legal Interpreting Fund may have created:
“Access to justice is vitally important of course, but by establishing and maintaining this fund, we may have inadvertently sent a message to some Maine lawyers that interpreters are readily available to them at no cost. The message we want to send is that effective communication is vital for all of us when we engage a lawyer, a doctor or any other professional and that Deaf people are entitled to services that create effective communication.”
Regardless of this change, equal access remains an obligation for private attorneys. Attorneys are required, under state and federal law, to provide qualified interpreters or real-time captioning when needed to represent clients who are deaf.
DRM Deaf Services provides advocacy and representation to deaf Maine residents to ensure access to effective communication, including in legal settings. We will continue to advocate for those who have trouble accessing interpreter services, and we will continue to train our communities on civil rights and equal access. Together with our partners, the Division for the Deaf, Hard of Hearing and late Deafened, the Commission for the Deaf, Hard of Hearing and Late Deafened, and the Maine Deaf Rights Group, we will continue to work ensure equality and communication access for all.
 The term “deaf” is to be interpreted to include individuals who may identify as Deaf, deaf, hard of hearing, late-deafened, and deaf-blind.
 Title III of the ADA, 42 U.S.C. §§ 12181-89, provides people with disabilities the right to equal access to public accommodations. Both Title III of the ADA, and the regulations issued by the U.S. Department of Justice pursuant to Title III, 28 C.F.R. Part 36, specifically include the offices of lawyers in the definition of public accommodations. 42 U.S.C. § 12181; 28 C.F.R. § 36.104.
For more information, see Division for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing webpage on Legal Interpreting. https://www.maine.gov/rehab/dod/legal_interp_info.shtml