John Woodley pushed a wheelchair through the Capitol almost every day this session, his files and laptop piled on the seat. He was born with partial deafness and can only hear low-pitch vowel sounds. A 2013 car crash left him unable to walk long distances or lift more than a couple of pounds.
While that didn’t stop him from visiting lawmakers’ offices to advocate for disability rights this session, Woodley says that the Capitol staff’s refusal to provide accommodations he requested under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) impeded his ability to participate in the legislative process.
“I’m missing the larger part of the alphabet,” Woodley said. “I can’t walk very far, I can’t run, I can’t carry very much, so I have to use assistive devices to help me.”
Woodley relies on a form of closed captioning known as communication access real-time translation. It requires another person to listen to an event and transcribe the discussion in shorthand. A computer translates the shorthand into words the user reads on a portable screen.
Woodley said he has been able to secure the service in county and city government meetings in Austin. But when he repeatedly asked for the captioning service for legislative hearings this year, his requests were denied, records show.
“Most people, if they need to follow up on a hearing, they can just go online and watch the video, but I don’t have that opportunity,” Woodley told the Observer.
Woodley’s first request for captioning was on April 14, a Sunday, for hearings on 14 bills. James Freeman, a payroll, personnel and ADA coordinator for the House, responded to Woodley the next day, asking him to specify each individual hearing and requesting at least 72 hours of notice for ADA requests. Woodley responded the same day with a request for captioning of a single hearing on April 18.
“Right now, our policy provides that we can provide interpreter services to accommodate those who are deaf or hearing impaired,” Freeman wrote back on April 15. In the same email, Freeman offered Woodley an American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter or an FM assistive listening device, which amplifies sound.
Those options “do not help me. I need [communication access real-time translation],” he told Freeman in another email a few minutes later.
In an interview with the Observer, Woodley explained why the other two options don’t work for him. “Not everybody who is deaf knows ASL. Some may know some sign, others maybe never learned sign language,” Woodley said. Since his deafness is not volume-specific, he said FM listening devices that amplify sound don’t help him either.
On April 17, Freeman wrote back to tell Woodley that his request for the individual hearing was denied, emails show. The request for captioning “was not reasonable or feasible,” Freeman wrote, citing unspecified costs and “the difficulty in coordinating live (ever-changing) events.
“These accommodations have been provided to many deaf, deaf-blind or hearing impaired advocates and other members of the public and have proven to be very helpful,” Freeman wrote. “We believe our current options for interpreter services and/or FM assistive listening devices are sufficient to provide meaningful access to the legislative process.”