Advancing Equal Access to Justice for Americans with Disabilities: Moving Towards Closing the Justice Gap on the 33rd Anniversary of the ADA
Justice belongs to everyone, including those with disabilities. Legal systems must be designed with the needs and perspectives of people with disabilities in mind, or the promise of equal justice under law rings hollow. On this 33rd anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the Office for Access to Justice reaffirms its commitment to ensuring that justice systems continue to work for people with disabilities, no matter the legal problem they face.
On July 26, 1990, President George H. W. Bush signed the ADA into law. This landmark legislation has protected people with disabilities from discrimination and advanced their inclusion in all areas of American life. Still, the intersection between disability rights and access to justice is underacknowledged and often misunderstood.
Nearly one in four American adults have a disability. These members of our community experience particular challenges as they use legal processes to solve problems related to crime, victimization and financial stability. From court technology platforms that are not accessible to blind users, to courtrooms with no wheelchair accessible entrances, to a lack of adequate sign language interpretation for d/Deaf and hard of hearing litigants, disabled people are often left disempowered as they navigate legal processes where most people, regardless of disability, have little access to legal representation or assistance. These access concerns are compounded by the stigma that people with disabilities face as they interact with justice system actors who question their credibility, their ability to make decisions in their legal matters, and whether they deserve redress for harms they have experienced.
According to the Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System, across income levels, 66% of the U.S. population had at least one legal problem in the past four years, with less than half of those problems resulting in resolution. Several of the top ten most burdensome civil legal problems, including employment discrimination, access to healthcare, disputes over disability benefits and poor working conditions, disproportionately affect those with disabilities. In addition, people with disabilities are over-represented in the criminal justice system as compared to people without disabilities. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the rate of violent crimes against people with disabilities was four times the rate for people without disabilities. In 2016, two in five (38%) of people incarcerated in state and federal prisons reported having at least one disability.
When people with disabilities do encounter the civil and criminal legal systems, they face a wide range of legal, communication, physical, and economic barriers.
People with disabilities face numerous legal barriers when it comes to achieving positive outcomes in matters related to family and financial stability.
- Two-thirds of state dependency statutes allow courts to determine that a parent is unfit, a finding necessary for the termination of parental rights, solely on the basis of disability.
- Individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities are often denied redress in the criminal legal system due to lack of understanding of how their disabilities might impact credibility and other factors.
Information and Communication Barriers
People with disabilities often experience challenges accessing critical information necessary to move forward in the legal process.
- According to an analysis of over 10,000 COVID-19 emergency orders issued by state and local courts conducted by The Pew Charitable Trusts, less than 3% of these documents included information about the accessibility of virtual court processes and the steps to request reasonable accommodations.
- Only 21 “for Deaf, by Deaf” programs exist across the country at the state and local level to provide services, support, and healing to survivors of domestic violence who are d/Deaf, Deafblind, and hard of hearing. These individuals frequently experience challenges communicating with law enforcement, domestic violence service providers and judges due to lack of access to sign language interpretation and other services.
People with disabilities can also experience barriers to physically accessing courthouses in order to participate in the legal process.
- In 2010, the U.S. Access Board released a report with recommendations for the design of accessible courthouses.
- The National Center for State Courts has also emphasized the importance of designing courthouses with access in mind.
- Rural residents, who make up less than 20% of the U.S. population, are nearly 15% more likely to have disabilities, making it all the more difficult for them to travel to far-away courthouses in the face of mobility challenges.
People with disabilities are disproportionately likely to experience financial instability that affects their experiences and outcomes in the legal system.
- Adults with disabilities are twice as likely to experience poverty as non-disabled adults and often receive lower pay than their non-disabled counterparts. Therefore, they are less likely to be able to afford legal assistance and less able to bear the costs of traveling to court.
- Households with at least one member with a disability are almost twice as likely to hold medical debt than households without members with disabilities, making them more vulnerable to debt collection lawsuits.
- According to the Center for American Progress, seven million renters with disabilities are moderately or severely cost-burdened (30% or more of their income goes in rent) and are therefore at higher risk of eviction.
The Office for Access to Justice is committed to making real the promise of equal justice for people with disabilities across the country. ATJ is expanding this focus through engagement with disability communities and advocates to identify challenges faced in the civil and criminal justice systems; partnerships with agencies across the federal government; and by identifying evidence-based, people-centered approaches to legal system reform.
For example, ATJ staffs and directs the work of the Legal Aid Interagency Roundtable (LAIR), an interagency effort co-chaired by Attorney General Garland and the White House Counsel’s Office. In 2022, LAIR issued a Report, Access to Justice through Simplification, which provides a people-centered Roadmap to simplifying access to the federal government. The roadmap requires prioritizing consistent and meaningful engagement with historically underserved and marginalized communities, including persons with disabilities, as a critical first step to understanding the access gaps to federal government programs and to inform the development of solutions. The LAIR Report highlights work of LAIR member agencies, including a new Department of Education regulation that automatically provides debt relief for eligible student-loan borrowers with total and permanent disabilities; and the Federal Trade Commission’s “Every Community” Initiative, which involved 300 events to combat consumer fraud and other issues in historically underserved communities and other population segments, including people with disabilities.
As we celebrate 33 years of the ADA, the pursuit of fair and equitable access to our nation’s legal systems for people with disabilities becomes ever more urgent. The Office for Access to Justice is committed to being a partner in this effort.
As a blind attorney who has spent more than a decade working to ensure a fair, efficient and equitable justice system, I take to heart the central slogan of the disability rights movement: “Nothing about us, without us,” and as we celebrate 33 years of building access and inclusion for people with disabilities, I look forward to bringing their perspectives to the table in the broader pursuit of equal access to justice for all.
Updated July 26, 2023