Navigating the Legal System When You're Deaf or Hard of Hearing

Guidance for Minnesotans seeking to overcome barriers to legal access

By Ross Pfund | Last updated on January 24, 2023

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Navigating the legal system can be tricky for anyone, but Minnesotans who are deaf or hard of hearing may face additional challenges. As the only attorney in the state who is a court-certified American sign language interpreter, Heather Gilbert has represented deaf, deaf-blind, hard of hearing, and hearing-impaired clients for years in matters like estate planning and employment law. She offers an example of how accessing the legal system can be more complicated for clients like hers. “If a husband and wife want to get a divorce,” she says, “and it’s pretty small estate and you’re pretty amicable, you can hire the two lawyers—or maybe just a mediator—to work through those things, and then you jointly file your petition for dissolution. It can be done in a very short period of time. “For a deaf couple, to even get the court to provide the interpreters for the mediator, they have to file, then wait to have a court hearing,” Gilbert continues. “Then they get to the court hearing and have to ask the judge for the court to pay for the interpreters for the mediation. And they don’t just pay for mediation, they only pay for FENEs, which are financial evaluators and SENEs, which are for the support, child support and marital support evaluators. The long and short of it is, it’s more expensive and a longer time frame for a deaf couple to get a divorce because of the accommodations that are needed.” While experiences will vary depending on whether the legal matter is criminal, civil or transactional, Gilbert, the president and managing attorney of Gilbert Law in St. Paul, offers some tips that may apply in many situations.

Expect the Initial Screening With an Attorney To Happen Via Telephone

“The reason for this,” says Gilbert, “is that in-person meetings usually take up more of an attorney’s time. Therefore, they usually do an initial screening over the phone to determine if an in-person meeting makes sense, or if they should refer you a different attorney that is a better fit for your legal issue.” Using video relay or a captioning phone is an ideal option for the this first screening.

Don’t be discouraged if you have to call a few attorneys to find the right fit. If an attorney declines to represent you, it may be because they don’t focus on that particular area of law, or they may have a heavy caseload at that particular moment. If that happens, you can ask them to refer you to a different lawyer. The Minnesota Disability Law Center may also be able to help.

Be Upfront About Your Communication Access Needs

“It is OK to say you need an ASL interpreter or real-time captioning,” Gilbert says. An attorney may not know how to access these services, so it can be helpful to tell them where they can find service providers—and to know that there are tax credits for attorneys who hire sign language interpreters. “The Internal Revenue Code Section 49 allows for us to have a 50% tax credit for any accommodation that we provide to a person with a disability over $250,” Gilbert adds. “A lot of people don’t know that, and it’s a real benefit.”

Remind Attorneys of Your Access Needs Before Upcoming Court Dates and Mediations

Even if you’ve previously discussed communication access needs, don’t assume that your attorney knows exactly what you need for depositions, court hearings or mediations. “Be sure to let the attorney know what you need and where to find the resources,” says Gilbert. “As the date gets closer to the hearing, check in with the attorney to ensure the court has secured the access services you need for a successful hearing.”

Give as Much Advance Notice as Possible When Requesting an ASL Interpreter or CART(Communication Access Realtime Translation)

In Minnesota, there are very few court certified legal interpreters. Qualified interpreters’ schedules fill up quickly, and it can be difficult to secure one with less than two weeks’ notice. “Don’t be alarmed if the court has to reschedule your hearing date to ensure you have communication access,” says Gilbert.

Don’t Expect Your Case to Process Quickly

With the exception of some criminal matters, many cases in the legal setting can take several months or even years to be resolved. “Sometimes there are long waiting periods where you may not hear anything about your case,” Gilbert says. “It is appropriate to check in once a week with the attorney, but don’t be surprised if there isn’t any news.”

For information on related areas of law, read our overview articles on civil rights and disability rights under the American with Disabilities Act (ADA).

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