Individuals Who Are Deaf or Hard-of-Hearing Can Receive Help to Communicate in Court

​Q: If I am deaf or hard of hearing, can I get services to help me hear court proceedings?
A: Yes. If you are deaf or hard of hearing, you have the legal right to “effective communication” so you can participate in court proceedings or access other court programs or services.

Q: What laws require courts to provide effective communication?
A: Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act protects individuals with disabilities, including people who are deaf or hard of hearing, who participate in court activities at either the local or the state level. This may include parties, witnesses, jurors, attorneys, spectators and victims. Federal courts are not covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act, but federal court policy requires federal courts to “provide reasonable accommodations to persons with communications disabilities.” Federal court policy only requires such accommodations for parties, attorneys and witnesses, although federal courts may choose to provide auxiliary aids or services to spectators. Finally, the Court Interpreters Act of 1978 applies to judicial proceedings in federal court, which includes all in-court criminal proceedings and any in-court civil proceeding brought by the U.S. government.

Q: What is “effective communication”?
A: Effective communication refers to the ability of an individual to understand and be understood in any court proceeding or program. For someone who is deaf or hard of hearing, “effective communication” may require some kind of accommodation or auxiliary aid or service (such as the presence of an interpreter).

Q: What must a court do to provide effective communication? 
A: The Americans with Disabilities Act requires state and local courts to provide and pay for appropriate auxiliary aids and services to ensure effective communication with individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing. Federal court policy has similar requirements. The federal Court Interpreters Act of 1978 requires qualified interpreters to be appointed at the court's expense in cases brought by the United States.
Q: What is an auxiliary aid or service?
A: An auxiliary aid or service includes qualified interpreters, transcription services, captioning, written materials, assistive listening devices and systems, or any other effective method of making aurally-heard materials accessible to an individual who is deaf or hard of hearing. An auxiliary aid or service does not include personal items such as a hearing aid or cochlear implant.

Q: What is a qualified interpreter?
A: A qualified interpreter is one who is able to interpret effectively, accurately and impartially, and who is familiar with any specialized vocabulary. For example, in a court proceeding, the interpreter may need to be trained as a legal interpreter in order to be qualified. Also, a court generally cannot require a family member, friend or companion to interpret for an individual who is deaf or hard of hearing. A family member, friend or companion who is an adult can do so upon request, but not if there is reason to doubt his or her impartiality or effectiveness.

Q: How do I ask for the auxiliary aid or service that I need in order to effectively communicate with the court?
A: Ask the court as soon as you know that you will need a service or auxiliary aid to participate in a court proceeding. Some courts have specific procedures or a specific person or office that handles requests for auxiliary aids or services. Generally, the clerk of court's office should be able to help you make your request or direct you to the appropriate person.

Q: Does the court have to give me the specific auxiliary aid or service that I request?
A: The court must provide the type of auxiliary aid or service necessary to ensure effective communication with the court, which usually means a sign language interpeter, but what is “necessary” depends on many factors. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, state and local courts must give primary consideration to an individual’s choice of service or auxiliary aid for effective communications with the court, but the court does not have to provide the specifically requested auxiliary aid or service in all circumstances. Federal court policy requires the court to honor a participant’s choice of auxiliary aid or service unless the court can show that another equally effective means of communication is available, or that the participant's choice of auxiliary aid or service would unduly burden the court.  
Q: Can the court charge me for an auxiliary aid or service?
A: No. A state or local court may not charge you for the use of an auxiliary aid or service required for effective communication, nor can the court consider the cost of such auxiliary aids or serves as "court costs." Federal court policy also prohibits the court from charging for sign language interpreters or other services or auxiliary aids needed for a participant’s communication with the court.

Q: What should I do if I feel I was denied effective communication by a court?
A: There are a number of administrative legal remedies available if a person with a disability is denied effective communication by a court, and you should contact Disability Rights Ohio at (800) 282-9181 for more specific guidance. Generally, however, a lawsuit under the Americans with Disabilities Act could be one option (the statute of limitations is two years), or a complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice (which must be filed within 180 days). Importantly, the Supreme Court of Ohio has recently established a highly effective complaint process for people who are denied a sign language interpreter by a state or local court. More information is available here:​.


This “Law You Can Use” column was provided by the Ohio State Bar Association (OSBA). It was originally prepared by Kerstin Sjoberg-Witt, legal director of Ohio Disability Rights Law and Policy Center in Columbus. It was updated by attorney Kevin J. Truitt of Ohio Disability Rights Policy Center.​​​

Articles appearing in this column are intended to provide broad, general information about the law. This article is not intended to be legal advice. Before applying this information to a specific legal problem, readers are urged to seek advice from a licensed attorney.



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