This memorandum addresses the obligations of a public school system under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Deaf or hard of hearing students, parents and others are entitled to equal access and an equal opportunity to participate in public school services, programs, and activities. The ADA and Section 504 apply to all programs and activities offered by a school system, including school board meetings, extracurricular programs, teacher conferences, recreational activities, social and cultural activities, adult education, summer school or hobby classes.
Section 504, 29 U.S.C. § 794, requires programs which receive federal financial assistance to provide accommodations, such as qualified interpreters, real-time captioning (also called CART), assistive listening devices, or other auxiliary aids, to people with disabilities when necessary to ensure effective communication. See also 34 C.F.R. §§ 104.4 and 104.21. Public school systems receive substantial federal financial assistance, so this law applies to them.
Title II of the ADA, 42 U.S.C. §§ 12101-12213, requires comparable access by all state and local government programs, regardless of whether or not the programs get federal financial assistance.
A separate federal law, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), also affects children with disabilities. The IDEA requires public school systems to provide a "free, appropriate public education" to children who need special education or related services because of a disability. The IDEA establishes a procedure for developing an individualized education program (IEP) and identifying needed support services for individual children. Although this is the principal law which determines the special educational services children will receive from a school system, Section 504 and the ADA provide additional protection, especially in the context of architectural accessibility, extracurricular activities, summer programs, and services for parents, members of the public, and other individuals with disabilities.
The U.S. Department of Justice has issued regulations to implement Title II of the ADA, which applies to activities of public entities such as school systems. 28 C.F.R. Part 35. The accompanying Analysis specifically addresses the question of duties of school systems to provide accessibility to parents with disabilities:
Some commenters asked for clarification about the responsibilities of public school systems under section 504 and the ADA with respect to programs, services and activities that are not covered by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), including, for example, programs open to parents or to the public, graduation ceremonies, parent-teacher organization meetings, plays and other events open to the public, and adult education classes. Public school systems must comply with the ADA in all of their services, programs, or activities, including those that are open to parents or to the public. For instance, public school systems must provide program accessibility to parents and guardians with disabilities to these programs, activities, or services, and appropriate auxiliary aids and services whenever necessary to ensure effective communication, as long as the provision of the auxiliary aid results neither in an undue burden or in a fundamental alteration of the program.
56 Fed. Reg. 35696 (July 26, 1991).
The ADA Title II regulations specifically address the obligation of a school board or other public entity to remove communication barriers for deaf individuals:
(a) A public entity shall take appropriate steps to ensure that communications with applicants, participants, and members of the public with disabilities are as effective as communications with others.
(b)(1) A public entity shall 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.
(2) In determining what type of auxiliary aid and service is necessary, a public entity shall give primary consideration to the requests of the individual with disabilities.
28 C.F.R. § 35.160.
The regulations define "auxiliary aids and services" to include:
Qualified interpreters, note takers, transcription services, written materials, telephone handset amplifiers, assistive listening devices, assistive listening systems, telephones compatible with hearing aids, closed caption decoders, open and closed captioning, telecommunications devices for deaf persons [TTYs], videotext displays, or other effective methods of making aurally delivered materials available to individuals with hearing impairments; . . . and . . . other similar services and actions.
28 C.F.R. § 35.104.
The appropriate auxiliary aid or service depends on the context of the communication and the needs of the individual with a disability. For example, in a school auditorium or a school board meeting, some deaf people may need a sign language interpreter to follow and participate in the proceedings. Other people who are hard of hearing may not use sign language. They may need a computer-assisted transcript (also called CART) or an assistive listening system (e.g., a loop system or an FM or infrared amplification system)