Creating a Better ADA Self-Evaluation (Part 1)Get People with Disabilities Involved Early in the Process

This is Part One of our Four-Part Blog Series describing how state and local governments (as well as Federal grantees) can conduct better self-evaluations under Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. We developed our approach from working for over twelve years with organizations like the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the California State University (CSU), and King County in Washington state.

What is a Title II or Section 504 Self-Evaluation?

Organizations face constant pressure to do more with less. Often this means that people with disabilities are excluded or unable to access critical government services. To avoid these problems, government agencies need to conduct periodic “self-evaluations” to identify gaps or barriers that impede people with disabilities from being able to fully participate in the agency's programs, services, or activities ("program access"). State and local government agencies commonly conduct self-evaluations to meet their obligations under Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Federal grantees and recipients of Federal funding are also required to conduct self-evaluations to meet the requirements of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. Self-evaluations under Title II and Section 504 are very similar-- they just affect two different types of entities.

In addition to self-evaluations, agencies also sometimes create transition plans. A self-evaluation focuses on overall program access. Sometimes, achieving program access means that agencies need to make architectural or physical changes to existing facilities. In these instances, a transition plan explains how an agency will make those physical or architectural changes. If an agency can achieve program access without any physical changes to its facilities, then a transition plan isn't necessary.

At Converge Accessibility, we've worked on many self-evaluations, transition plans, and compliance reviews. The architects whom we've worked with on transition plans and compliance reviews are some of the best in the accessibility industry; they are really creative at coming up with inexpensive (and physically beautiful!) solutions to vexing accessibility problems. This blog series, however, focuses only on self-evaluations because we want to show you how our process is quicker, simpler, and much more inclusive of people with disabilities.

Include People with Disabilities Early and Often in the Process

Our first recommendation is obvious but usually isn’t followed: get people with disabilities involved early in the self-evaluation process. The Title II regulations say very little about public involvement and only require that, “[a] public entity shall provide an opportunity to interested persons, including individuals with disabilities or organizations representing individuals with disabilities, to participate in the self-evaluation process by submitting comments.” 28 CFR § 35.105(b).

Most organizations satisfy this requirement by allowing people with disabilities to comment on their draft self-evaluation after they had completed their initial review of agency practices. Years ago, we also followed this approach because it was fast and simple. It also missed a number of problems. Why? Because most problems never get reported to staff yet can remain hidden under the surface for years.

If your team has a good awareness of disability rights issues, you can quickly get a sense of legal issues that hide under the surface from talking to the local disability community. For instance, we recently conducted a survey of a local government agency and how they make “reasonable modifications of policies.” We also asked them about any formal complaints or informal grievances that they heard from members of the public. On the surface, everything seemed fine. In public listening sessions with the disability community, however, some people complained about standing in long lines at some of the offices. This concern reveals a potential problem: how does the agency accommodate people who can’t stand for prolonged periods or people who need to frequently use the restroom? If agency staff can’t readily identify this need—and how to make reasonable modifications of policies (such as providing chairs or offering to page a user’s cell phone) to avoid this kind of discrimination—the agency risks violating customers’ rights. Even if the agency does have a process in place to address these needs, people with disabilities may not know that such accommodations are available. In this case, the agency should provide ample seating and remind all people with disabilities that they are welcome to ask for accommodations.

Why is feedback from the disability community essential? The problem with relying only on complaint logs or other forms of customer feedback is that people may not want to file a complaint, may be concerned about draw attention to themselves, or may not believe that complaining will result in positive change. In the earlier example about long lines, members of the public may just feel that long lines are inevitable at government agencies and, short of a medical emergency or public embarrassment, telling the agency about the problem won't make a difference. This hesitation mostly disappears when agencies use listening sessions specific to people with disabilities; they are being listened to and their voices count.

The bottom line: seek input from the local community of people with disabilities early in the self-evaluation process. It is one of the most valuable tools for setting priorities and for uncovering problems that government agencies may be overlooking.

Interested in Other Ideas for a Better Self-Evaluation?

Early involvement of the disability community is only one part of making self-evaluations better. If you’d like to learn other simple ideas to make self-evaluations faster, less expensive, and much better, download our white paper using the form below.

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