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What are the courts' responsibilities under the ADA?

As reflected in recent Bar News articles, there is presently a heightened awareness among the legal community of the obstacles that individuals with disabilities face when accessing the justice system. The Florida State Courts System is pleased to take this opportunity to provide News readers with updates on endeavors to enhance accessibility in two key areas--court facilities and court technology.

First, some background information to provide a context for the current efforts. The Americans with Disabilities Act was enacted in 1990 to ensure that qualified individuals with disabilities enjoy the same opportunities that are available to persons without disabilities. The ADA provides civil rights protections to individuals with disabilities similar to those provided to individuals on the basis of race, color, sex, national origin, age, and religion.

Florida's courts have a long-standing commitment to full compliance with the ADA. We recognize our Title I obligations by providing accommodations for judicial officers and court employees. Pursuant to Title II, the State Courts System provides auxiliary aids and services for qualified parties, witnesses, jurors, and other persons with disabilities who have an interest in attending any state court proceeding or participating in other court services, programs, or activities.

The Florida court system's practice of granting accommodations to qualified court participants with disabilities was established within each trial and appellate court following the 1990 enactment of the ADA. The courts make reasonable modifications in policies, practices, and procedures; furnish auxiliary aids and services; and ensure program accessibility through providing accessible facilities, relocating services or programs, or providing services at alternative sites, as appropriate and necessary. As envisioned by the act, the determination of whether a person has a disability and the accommodations appropriate to a particular situation are individualized inquiries and are therefore made on a case-by-case basis. All accommodations that are granted by the state courts are made at no cost to qualified individuals with disabilities.

The Florida State Courts System will generally, upon request, provide appropriate aids and services leading to effective communication for qualified persons with disabilities so they can participate equally in court programs, services, and activities. Examples of auxiliary aids or services that the State Courts System may provide for qualified individuals with disabilities include:

* Assistive listening devices.

* Qualified sign language interpreters and oral interpreters.

* Real-time transcription services.

* Accessible formats such as large print, Braille, electronic format, or audio tapes.

* Qualified readers.

Examples of aids or services the state courts system is not required to provide under Title II of the ADA include:

* Transportation to the courthouse.

* Legal counsel or advice.

* Personal devices such as a wheelchair or hearing aid.

* Personal services such as medical or attendant care

The ADA does not require the court system to take any action that would fundamentally alter the nature of court programs, services, or activities, or that impose an undue financial or administrative burden.

To facilitate access to the courts for qualified individuals with disabilities, each trial and appellate court has designated at least one individual to serve as the court ADA coordinator. The court ADA coordinators are available to respond to requests for accommodations and other disability-related inquiries. Contact information for court ADA coordinators is posted on each court's Web site as well as the Florida Courts Web site at www.flcourts. org).

Each trial and appellate court in Florida has adopted grievance procedures that allow for the resolution of complaints without resorting to federal complaint procedures. Those procedures may be used by anyone who wishes to file a complaint alleging discrimination on the basis of disability in the provision of services, activities, programs, or benefits by the Florida State Courts System. For further information about state court grievance procedures, contact the local court ADA coordinator, the marshal of the applicable appellate court, the court administrator of the applicable trial court, or the ADA Coordinator, Office of the State Courts Administrator, 500 S. Duval Street, Tallahassee 32399-1900, e-mail osca@ flcourts.org.

Access to Court Facilities

While Florida's courts have made significant progress since the 1990 enactment of the ADA to ensure program accessibility for persons with disabilities, structural barriers remain in many courthouses. In his June 2006 passing of the gavel address, Chief Justice Fred Lewis drew attention to this issue, declaring, "These artificial barriers must not be in place for Florida's citizens" and vowed to make architectural accessibility of court facilities one of his top priorities.

Chief Justice Lewis directed the Supreme Court Standing Committee on Fairness and Diversity to build a coalition of the judiciary and our justice system partners, and engage in a collaborative effort designed to facilitate practical enhancements to court facilities. The objective of the initiative is the removal of architectural barriers consistent with the federal ADA Standards for Accessible Design as well as the Florida Accessibility Code for Building Construction.

Facility accessibility issues in the Florida courts are complex. Our state courts are housed in 138 facilities from Pensacola to Key West. The state is responsible for facilities that house the appellate courts, while the 67 counties are responsible for facilities that house the trial courts. Accordingly, court accessibility efforts must involve the cooperation of all three branches of government at the state and local levels.

The need for accessible court facilities is tremendous and the impact on individuals with disabilities who have business before the courts is incalculable. Over four million cases are filed each year in Florida courts, involving a multitude of parties, victims, witnesses, jurors, and other interested persons, all of whom will benefit from more accessible court facilities. Attorneys, court interpreters, court reporters, mediators, and other law-related professionals who frequently interact with the courts will benefit from the initiative as well.

The Standing Committee on Fairness and Diversity is providing input and advice on the initiative at the statewide level. The committee developed an exemplary survey instrument that not only encompasses the usual items like parking, entrances, and paths of travel, but also addresses elements that are unique to court facilities, such as jury assembly areas, witness stands, judges' benches, and holding cells. The survey instrument incorporates the requirements of the ADA Standards for Accessible Design, the Florida Accessibility Code for Building Construction, and recommendations from the U.S. Access Board's Courthouse Access Advisory Committee.

The chief judge of each trial and appellate court has also appointed a Court Accessibility Team to oversee the project within his or her respective jurisdiction. More than 500 people have agreed to serve on these teams and are actively participating in accessibility assessments of their local court facilities. A full day of training was provided to inform the team members about the accessibility requirements for court facilities and to equip them for conducting the surveys. Nearly 400 judges, clerks, county officials and staff, attorneys, architects, court staff, and members of the disability community participated in the regional training sessions.

This initiative has placed Florida in the forefront on access to court facilities. Laura Einstein, an attorney from the U.S. Department of Justice who spoke at two of the regional training sessions, indicated she believes Florida is the first state in the nation to embark on such a comprehensive initiative on a voluntary and proactive basis. Pam Dorwarth, a Florida-based member of the U.S. Access Board, informed her colleagues in Washington about the project and reported that the board was very pleased and excited to learn about the initiative.

Courts across the state are engaged in the surveys, which are due this fall. The surveys are an enormous undertaking that require a substantial allocation of court and county resources to accomplish. Following completion of the surveys, each court will develop updated transition plans. Implementation of the transition plans will, by its very nature, occur on an ongoing and long-term basis.

Access to Electronic Information and Technology

With the explosion of personal computers, the advent of the Internet, and the rapid growth of other technologies used in the workplace, in our homes, and in our schools since the enactment of the ADA, the concept of accessibility has taken on a new meaning.

During the 2006 session, the Florida Legislature enacted a law that requires state government entities to adhere to the standards set forth in [section] 508 of the federal Rehabilitation Act. F.S. [section] 282.601 through [section] 282.606, Florida Statutes, require the judicial branch to ensure that our electronic information and technology are accessible to persons with disabilities. These requirements extend to word processing documents, spreadsheet files, and PDFs, as well as Web pages, slide show presentations, videos, audio files, software applications, computer hardware, and self-contained closed products such as telephones, faxes, and copy machines. The law became effective July 1, 2006, and applies prospectively to electronic information or information technology developed, competitively procured, maintained, or used by state entities on or after that date.

No funding was provided to support implementation of this important legislation. Furthermore, those with technology expertise advise that in some instances the aspirations of the law exceed the current state of technology. Nevertheless, the Florida courts are earnestly working to ensure access to electronic information and technologies. Educational presentations and training sessions on this topic have been, and will continue to be, provided for chief judges, court managers, court webmasters, court technology officers, and other court staff. Many improvements have already been made to the Supreme Court Web site (www.floridasupremecourt.org) and the state courts Web site (www.flcourts.org).

The courts are continuing to gain in our understanding of how the new law impacts on court business, including distance learning programs, contracting practices, and e-filing. Full accessibility of court technology will require the cooperation of all our justice system partners.

In closing, access to the courts by all citizens, including individuals with disabilities, is a priority for the Florida judicial branch. The Florida courts expend considerable time, effort, and resources to address the court-related needs of persons with disabilities. Of course, further improvements can always be made, and the Florida courts will continue their efforts in that regard.

By Debbie Howells

ADA Coordinator for the State Courts System
COPYRIGHT 2007 Florida Bar
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Author:Howells, Debbie
Publication:Florida Bar News
Date:Sep 1, 2007
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