Report Finds Barriers to Justice for Individuals in New York City Courts
By Nahid Sorooshyari, Senior Staff Attorney, MFY Legal Services, Inc.
We Examine the ADA Liaison Program
People with disabilities should have equal access to justice. Disability rights laws, like the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), require courts to make their programs and services accessible to people with disabilities. The New York Unified Court System (UCS) has a program for helping people with disabilities, called the ADA Liaison program. However, a recent report by MFY Legal Services found that the program needs to be improved.
The ADA requires courts to be accessible to people with physical disabilities. Courts must also make reasonable accommodations to their rules, policies, and procedures so that people with all types of disabilities—including psychiatric and invisible disabilities—can participate in the court’s services, programs, and activities to the same extent as people without disabilities. UCS has assigned at least one “ADA Liaison” to each courthouse. ADA Liaisons are court employees who should know about the ADA and how to work with people with disabilities. People with disabilities can contact their local ADA Liaison to request a reasonable accommodation or get information about their rights and are encouraged to do so before they come to court. The program could be a great help, but it has serious flaws.
Many people who need the program do not even know it exists. UCS is supposed to advertise information about the ADA and the ADA Liaison program. It uses an “Accessibility Information Webpage” to do so, but this webpage is not always highlighted on individual court websites or on other parts of the UCS website. UCS is also supposed to advertise the program in courthouses. UCS has posters to do so, but the posters are poorly designed. For example, they include four symbols—a person in a wheelchair, two hands symbolizing sign-language interpreting, an ear with a bar over it indicating services for the deaf, and a person with a cane. These symbols do not make it clear that people with psychiatric disabilities may also get accommodations.
Someone who finds out about the program faces another problem—reaching an ADA Liaison. UCS’s webpage provides a directory of ADA Liaisons. People are told to use the directory to contact their local ADA Liaison at the listed phone number. In May 2016, MFY tried to confirm the contact information of all forty-nine civil court ADA Liaisons listed for the five boroughs. MFY had a problem contacting the listed ADA Liaison more than 65% of the time. For example, 24% of the names and numbers listed were either for retired or former staff, or someone who stated they were not the ADA Liaison and 18% of the phone numbers simply did not work. Either the number was not in service or the call was sent to voicemail, but the caller could not leave a message. When we could leave a message, 24% of the voicemails were not returned within eight business days.
During the phone survey, MFY spoke to court staff who did not know about the program, or said that there was no ADA Liaison at that court. One person stated that she was given the position, but was never trained. In 2012, MFY requested all training materials provided to ADA Liaisons and documents stating which ADA Liaisons receive training and how often. The Office of Court Administration provided only a two-page pamphlet titled “Communicating with People with Disabilities,” and stated that there were no records about which ADA Liaisons received training or how often.
Probably due to poor training, ADA Liaisons often get the law wrong. For example, an MFY client requested to appear in court by telephone because a medical condition made her incontinent. The ADA Liaison incorrectly said that this was impossible because the client “lived in New York City.” Also, ADA Liaisons too often suggest guardians ad litem (“GALs”)—people appointed to advocate for those who are unable to advocate for themselves. Though some people with disabilities may need a GAL, most can advocate for themselves with a reasonable accommodation. For example, someone with agoraphobia should be allowed to appear by telephone, not be assigned a GAL.
MFY’s report recommends ways to improve the ADA Liaison program. Since the report’s publication, MFY has met with court officials and community groups to try to implement these solutions and make justice for all a reality. If you would like to read MFY’s report, please visit our website at www.mfy.org.