People with disabilities sometimes receive services and benefits from state and local agencies such as General Assistance, Emergency Assistance, Medicaid, Unemployment, Temporary Disability Insurance, and others. The law sometimes entitles people with disabilities to accessible services from state and local agencies. This article will describe the right to accessible services and how people with disabilities can request and enforce their rights.
Legal Rights to Accessible State and Local Government Services
Accessibility of services generally means the ability for people to enter, approach, communicate with, or make use of the services. State and federal laws require that state and local agency services be accessible to people with disabilities.
Title II of the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA)
Title II of the ADA applies to state and local government agencies, and protects qualified individuals with disabilities from discrimination on the basis of disability in services, programs, and activities they provide. Title II extends anti-discrimination rules of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, as amended, to all activities of state and local governments regardless of whether these entities receive federal funds. Title II complaints are enforced by the U.S. Dept. of Justice, Civil Rights Division. It is also possible to file a lawsuit. The ADA does not state a time period limitation to file a lawsuit, but uses the one in a closely comparable state action. In most cases in New Jersey, that would be two years from the date of the incident. However, you should check with a lawyer if you have a question about your deadline.
To qualify for protection, you must show you are a qualified person with a disability. The ADA disability definition requires that your condition substantially limit one or more major life activities. Major life activities include things like caring for yourself, doing manual tasks, seeing, hearing, eating, sleeping, walking, standing, lifting, bending, speaking, breathing, learning, reading, concentrating, thinking, communicating, and working. Your disability may also qualify if you have a history or record of a physical or mental impairment that substantially limited one or more major life activities. Some are covered if they are regarded as having an impairment, whether the person has the impairment or not. A person must also prove they are “qualified.” A person is qualified if the person meets the essential eligibility requirements for the program they want to access.
There are some limited exceptions to the accessibility laws. Sometimes, if an accommodation would result in a fundamental alteration of the program then the agency need not provide it.
New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD)
NJLAD is a state law that prohibits discrimination in places of public accommodation based on actual or perceived disability. A place of public accommodation includes government offices or agencies, among other things. People with disabilities cannot be denied access to or treated less favorably by a place of public accommodation because of their disability.
Anyone who believes their rights under the NJLAD have been violated may file a complaint with NJDCR within 180 days of the incident. Alternatively, they have the right to file a lawsuit in Superior Court which must usually be done within two years from the act of discrimination. For more information on how to file a complaint and other rules, see the resource section.
The disability definition under NJLAD is broader and easier to satisfy than the ADA definition. The NJLAD disability definition includes conditions classified as a physical disability, infirmity, malformation, or disfigurement. These include, but are not limited to, amputation; lack of physical coordination; blindness or visual impediment; deafness or hearing impediment; muteness or speech impediment; or any mental, psychological, or developmental disability, including autism spectrum disorders. Under NJLAD you also have to prove you meet the essential eligibility requirements for the receipt of services or participation in the program.
Examples of Accessible Services
There are many types of accommodations if your disability interferes with your receipt of services or benefits. Here are some common examples.
How to Request Accessible Services
There are several tips for making accessible service requests.
Request accessible services in writing and save a copy for your records. Even though the law does not always require written requests, it’s a good idea to put it in writing for several reasons. You can more easily prove that you made the request if a question arises later. Also, you will likely deal with different people at the state or local agency over time. It is better to have a written copy of your request that you can share and refer to, instead of having to explain it over and over. It’s even better if you save proof that the agency received your request (e-mail, fax records, certificate of mailing).
Make sure the request identifies you as a person with a disability who is qualified for the program. The law requiring accessible services only applies in favor of people with qualifying disabilities. If you don’t state or show that you have a disability, then the agency won’t be legally required to accommodate you. For example, saying, “I have a disability that prevents me from seeing and reading normal print,” establishes that you have a condition that affects a major life activity (reading). The agency is on notice and should inform you if it needs more details. Also, you have to show you meet the program eligibility requirements.
State clearly why the service is not accessible to you and what you need. For example, if you missed a mandatory appointment at the agency because you were in the hospital due to your disability, mention that and ask for a rescheduled appointment and that any penalties be waived.
Find out who handles disability accommodation and accessibility requests at the agency, and route your requests to the correct person. Most agencies have designated people who are familiar with the disability laws, and who handle accommodation and accessibility requests. If you send your accessibility request to someone else at the agency who is not familiar with those rules they may not know what to do. It’s a good idea to ask your contact person at the agency “who should I send a disability accommodation or accessibility request to?”
Follow agency rules and procedures. Some agencies may have particular rules, procedures, and instructions. Ask about them and follow them so your request is not delayed due to non-cooperation. It’s usually easier to cooperate with the agency’s reasonable requests than to fight with them over it. Also, many of those rules have favorable terms that encourage the agency to provide accessible services.
For example, the New Jersey Department of Human Services and Division of Family Development issued detailed guidance that state and county agencies administering many programs must make their services accessible to people with disabilities. The guidance, entitled DFD Instruction No. 05-6-1 was issued to agencies administering General Assistance, TANF, Emergency Assistance, Food Stamps, and other programs. It contains many examples of what accessible services the agencies should provide. If you are a person with a disability requesting those services you can refer your caseworker to those instructions, a copy of which is found here at DFD Program Instruction on Providing Services to Individuals with Disabilities (from Community Health Law Project). Other agencies may have their own policies and guidance.
New Jersey Courts acknowledge their obligation to make Court services accessible to people with disabilities. The Courts maintain a list of procedures for access to the Courts for people with disabilities: The New Jersey Judiciary’s Title II ADA Procedures for Access to the Courts By Individuals with Disabilities. The Courts also maintain a list of ADA Disability Coordinators who can be contacted to request disability accommodations.
Common Problems and How to Deal With Them
“That’s not our policy.”
Sometimes an agency employee will try to shut down your accessibility request by claiming it is not the agency’s policy to do what you are asking for. The law is clear, however, that an agency sometimes must alter its policies in order to accommodate people with disabilities and make its services accessible. If you are told it’s “not our policy” after making your request, ask the person to forward your request to the person responsible for handling disability accommodation and accessibility requests.
Odds are you are speaking with an agency employee not trained in how to handle them or they would know better than to say that. If you still don’t get the needed accommodation, then point out that the law requires them to consider altering the policies to accommodate your disability. If that does not work and you still are not getting accessible services, you may need to contact a lawyer or file a claim.
Your Request is Granted by One Person at The Agency but Others There Don’t Recognize It
Sometimes an agency grants your disability accessibility request, but when you speak to a different person at the agency they are not aware of it and will not accommodate you. In other cases, they try to require you to go through the whole process of proving yourself again. That is usually a communication problem. One way to reduce the chances of that happening is to ask the agency to acknowledge in writing that they approved your accommodation request. An example: You send an e-mail or letter asking your contact person at the agency to acknowledge back that the agency approved your request to send you all written notices in extra-large print so you could read them. When they respond back yes, save the email and response. If you have a problem with a different person at the agency, then you can forward the emails or letters showing that the agency already approved your request.
Losing Your Rights by Not Understanding the Difference Between Internal and External Claims and Appeals
Internal claims and appeals are the ones done within the agency that you are requesting accessible services from. For example, if a deaf person asked the NJ State Dept. of Labor to provide a sign language interpreter for her unemployment benefits hearing, and it denied the request, the agency might have its own internal claim and appeal procedures she could follow asking it to change its decision.
External claims and appeals are ones you make outside of the agency that you are requesting accessible services from. Examples would be filing a discrimination complaint against the agency in Court, or with the agencies responsible for enforcing the disability anti-discrimination laws (New Jersey Division on Civil Rights, U.S. Dept. of Justice, Civil Rights Division).
The only way to legally require an agency to provide accessible services if it won’t voluntarily agree to do so is through external claims and appeals. There are deadlines to file those external claims and appeals. With only a few rare exceptions, if you file your external claim after those deadlines have passed then you lose your rights.
Filing internal agency claims and appeals does not affect the deadlines for filing external claims and appeals. People have lost their rights to a legal remedy by not realizing that. For those reasons, it is a good idea to calendar your deadlines for filing external claims. Even if you have a pending internal agency claim or appeal, you will need to file your external claim before the external claim deadline to avoid the risk of losing your rights.
In conclusion, people with disabilities have rights to accessible services and help is available for enforcing those rights. People with questions about their rights can submit a request online at www.lsnjlawhotline.org or call the LSNJLAWSM Hotline at 1-888-576-5529 (1-888-LSNJ-LAW). Further resources are available below.
This information last reviewed: Oct 31, 2022