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4 Ways Legislatures Are Making Citizen Participation Easier

By Kae Warnock and Brenda Erickson | Oct. 12, 2020 | State Legislatures Magazine

Legislatures translate the public will into public policy for the states, so an important component of the legislative process is citizen participation.

The public may participate in the legislative process by contacting their legislators by mail, email, phone or personal visit; listening to, attending or testifying at committee hearings; and listening to or attending floor sessions.

This may sound straightforward, but it’s not always so easy—especially if someone has a disability. Legislatures, however, are making public participation easier by offering reasonable access to auxiliary communication mechanisms. Here are four examples.

Alternative Document Formats

To ensure everyone has equal access to the information, documents may be presented in different formats. Common alternative formats include audio, Braille, electronic or large print.

In Illinois, the daily Senate and House calendars and committee schedules are available in Braille with 48-hour notice. The daily calendars also are available in large print.

Upon request, printed materials of the Iowa General Assembly will be provided in the following formats:

  • Audiocassette tape.
  • Large print.
  • Computer disk in either ASCII or WordPerfect format for conversion to synthetic speech.
  • Braille.

In Texas, audiocassettes may be requested for committee hearings and chamber proceedings, and legislation can be obtained on computer disk in either text file or Microsoft Word format for conversion to synthesized speech.

Washington provides documents in a variety of formats, including large print, Braille and audiotape. Louisiana offers documents in large print or Braille (with advance request). In Utah, documents may be requested in Braille. And West Virginia offers bills in Braille.

In at least nine other states—Massachusetts, Maine, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, Nevada, Oklahoma, Oregon and Wyoming—individuals with visual impairments may request documents in extra-large print.

Assistive Listening Devices

Legislatures may offer headphones or assistive listening devices, such as hearing loops, to amplify sound for people with hearing impairments. Hearing loops send sounds electronically to telecoil, or “t-coil,” hearing aids and cochlear implants. Availability may be limited to specific rooms, such as the chamber or certain hearing rooms.

In Colorado, headphones may be checked out at the time of a legislative proceeding from the sergeants-at-arms. T-coil technology and t-coil neck loops are available in specific rooms—Colorado’s Old Supreme Court Chambers and the Joint Budget Committee Hearing Room. Assistive listening devices are available in chambers or committee rooms in at least 13 other state capitols.

In Kansas, each committee room in the Capitol is equipped with two headsets for hearing assistance. Oregon offers hearing assistance devices for all hearing rooms and chambers. And Vermont has a limited amount of personal hearing devices available for the Senate and House chambers and two committee rooms.

Sign Language Interpreters

At least 20 states may provide sign language interpreters.

Sign language interpreters are not always available quickly, so advance notice for assistance often is required.

Minnesota asks for at least 36-hour notice, while Arizona, Delaware, Georgia, Kentucky, Missouri, Oklahoma, South Dakota and Wyoming require 48 hours. And in Florida, New Jersey, North Carolina, Oregon and Tennessee, requests must be made three or more days in advance.

The types of proceedings at which interpreter services are available may be limited. In Colorado, services are available only for official legislative proceedings at which legislative action may be taken, such as committee hearings and Senate or House floor debate. In Delaware, sign language interpreters are available at Legislative Hall, including for committee hearings and floor proceedings.

The Florida Legislature will make available a sign language interpreter for chamber floor sessions, committee meetings and legislatively scheduled public events.

Georgia provides sign language interpreting services for meetings with legislators, legislative committee hearings, House and Senate floor sessions, and guided Capitol tours.

In Iowa, an interpreter may be requested for a Senate or House floor session, any standing or interim committee meeting, and meetings with individual legislators at the Capitol.

The Tennessee General Assembly will provide in-person sign language interpreter services upon request for House and Senate floor sessions, committee hearings and other scheduled events in specific locations in the legislative complex.

Telecommunications Relay Service

A telecommunication relay service allows people with hearing impairments or speech disorders to place calls to standard telephone users via a keyboard or assistive device. Examples of this equipment include teletypewriters (TTYs) and voice carry over (VCO), hearing carryover (HCO), speech-to-speech and captioned telephones.

In Iowa, a teletypewriter is available through the offices of the Senate secretary, the House chief clerk and the ombudsman.

The Minnesota Relay Service is described as a free, confidential service “where a specially trained communications assistant facilitates telephone conversations between a person who has a hearing loss or speech disability and the person with whom they wish to speak.”

The statewide Oklahoma Relay Service connects standard (voice) telephone users with deaf, hard-of-hearing, deaf-blind, speech-disabled or late-deafened people who use TTYs or VCO phones.

In Texas, the Capitol Information and Guide Services Office will assist individuals who need TTY or TDD (telecommunications device for the deaf) services.

In at least 11 other states, TTY, TDD or other telecommunication relay services specifically are listed or described on the legislature’s accessibility website.

Brenda Erickson is a program principal and Kae Warnock is a policy specialist in NCSL’s Legislative Staff Services Program.

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