Investigation indicates agencies are failing to ensure equal and meaningful access to signing deaf and hard of hearing individuals seeking assistance with completion of applications for public benefits
Washington, D.C., — May 13, 2021 — Today, the National Association of the Deaf (NAD) and the Equal Rights Center (ERC) alerted Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia state and county agencies about disability discrimination in the administration of public benefits that a recent investigation uncovered. The NAD and ERC invite these agencies to work quickly and collaboratively to ensure that no one is prevented from accessing critical public benefits, especially during the on-going COVID-19 pandemic. At the start of the pandemic, members of the disability community informed the NAD and the ERC that meaningful access to public benefits, particularly during the pandemic, is of paramount importance. As a result, the NAD and the ERC conducted a testing investigation of access to public benefits like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) in the region.
The results of that investigation indicate that signing deaf and hard of hearing people have been denied meaningful and equal access to the assistance regional public benefits offices provide consumers in completing benefits applications because those state agencies have refused to provide any kind of interpretation assistance, including, but not limited to qualified American Sign Language (ASL) interpreters, either in person or virtually. The investigation also uncovered inconsistent and illegal responses to callers who identify as deaf or who are calling on behalf of deaf relatives when they requested ASL interpretation. These failures violate Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which require public entities to provide disabled consumers with meaningful access to, and equal opportunity to participate in, all agency programs, activities, and services.
NAD CEO Howard A. Rosenblum comments, “We understand that state and county benefits agencies have faced many challenges in operating their programs over the last year. Yet, state agencies cannot ignore deaf and hard of hearing individuals, especially since they are among those most in need and marginalized, and that’s why we’re advocating for a collaborative solution.”
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that unemployment rates for persons with a disability were substantially higher than those for persons without a disability and, in 2020, 17.9 percent of persons with a disability were employed, down from 19.3 percent in 2019. As members of the disability community, these numbers reflect the harsh reality for signing deaf persons and hard of hearing people, who face higher rates of unemployment than their non-disabled peers and who deserve and need equal access to public benefits.
The investigation was based on civil rights testing, an investigative tool used to gather evidence, usually in order to compare conduct to legal requirements or a policy. It usually involves one or more people covertly engaging in a transaction or interaction. In some tests, callers received a flat “no” in response to questions about whether agency representatives could arrange ASL interpretation for a deaf applicant trying to complete a benefits application. In contrast, agents told testers they could help a hearing applicant complete their application over the phone. Some agents told testers that they needed to arrange interpretation services themselves and hung up on testers who attempted to clarify the process for doing so. Another tester was told, “Ma’am we don’t do that” in response to a request for interpretation assistance on an application. A state employee explicitly told a hearing tester calling about a deaf sibling who needed interpretation, “Now, if he’s deaf, he’s not going to be able to do it over the phone.” Testers were also repeatedly told that they would need to find a hearing person to assist them with the application, as agency offices were closed to the public due to the pandemic.
These examples represent egregious violations of federal law. The ADA and Section 504 require public entities to provide disabled consumers with meaningful access to, and equal opportunity to participate in, all agency programs, activities, and services. According to federal regulations, the obligation to “furnish appropriate auxiliary aids and services where necessary to afford an individual with a disability an equal opportunity to participate in, and enjoy the benefits of, a service, program, or activity conducted by a public entity” clearly falls on the public agency, not the individual with a disability. The ERC/NAD investigation shows a repeated failure on the part of the public entities in question to follow their obligations.
ERC Executive Director Kate Scott states, “The pandemic has had a devastating impact on many communities, including the disability community. Access to public benefits like SNAP and TANF can be life-saving, so even though we are all facing unprecedented challenges, compliance with civil rights obligations is absolutely vital. We are hopeful that the agencies we’ve been in touch with will accept our invitation to fix the problems our investigation uncovered.”
Rosenblum adds “Deaf and hard of hearing individuals need access to state services, and are often neglected during disasters and health crises. State agencies must be prepared for such events and we offer our assistance to ensure that readiness includes being able to serve our community.”
Anyone who is deaf or hard of hearing who has experienced discrimination in applying for public benefits is encouraged to report their experiences here.
Advocacy letters were sent to the Maryland Department of Human Services, Virginia Department of Social Services, and West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources, along with various county agencies in the three states.
The NAD and the ERC are represented in this matter by the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs and Handley Farah & Anderson.
Equal Rights Center
ABOUT THE NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF THE DEAF: The National Association of the Deaf (NAD) is the nation’s premier civil rights organization of, by and for deaf and hard of hearing individuals in the United States of America. Established in 1880, the NAD was shaped by deaf leaders who believed in the right of the American deaf community to use sign language, to congregate on issues important to them, and to have its interests represented at the national level. The advocacy scope of the NAD is broad, covering a lifetime and impacting future generations in the areas of early intervention, education, employment, health care, technology, telecommunications, youth leadership, and more – improving the lives of millions of deaf and hard of hearing Americans. For more information, please visit www.nad.org.
ABOUT THE EQUAL RIGHTS CENTER: The ERC is a civil rights organization that identifies and seeks to eliminate unlawful and unfair discrimination in housing, employment and public accommodations in its home community of Greater Washington DC and nationwide. The ERC’s core strategy for identifying unlawful and unfair discrimination is civil rights testing. When the ERC identifies discrimination, it seeks to eliminate it through the use of testing data to educate the public and business community, support policy advocacy, conduct compliance testing and training, and, if necessary, take enforcement action. For more information, please visit www.equalrightscenter.org.
ABOUT THE WASHINGTON LAWYERS’ COMMITTEE: Founded in 1968, The Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs works to create legal, economic and social equity through litigation, client and public education and public policy advocacy. While we fight discrimination against all people, we recognize the central role that current and historic race discrimination plays in sustaining inequity and recognize the critical importance of identifying, exposing, combatting and dismantling the systems that sustain racial oppression. For more information, please visit www.washlaw.org or call 202.319.1000. Follow us on Twitter at @WashLaw4CR.
ABOUT HANDLEY FARAH & ANDERSON: Handley Farah & Anderson are lawyers who seek to improve the world. Based in Washington, D.C., they fight for: workers deprived of wages, consumers deceived about products, tenants denied access to housing, farmers mistreated by processors, parents deprived of adequate parental leave, investors who were defrauded, small businesses harmed by antitrust violations, persons with disabilities denied access, whistleblowers who uncover fraud, and women and communities of color subject to discrimination. For more information, please visit www.hfajustice.com.
 Persons with a Disability: Labor Force Characteristics News Release (bls.gov). Last visited April 20, 2021.