Tennessee Launches New Accessible Absentee Voting Process

July 21, 2020 NASHVILLE, TN — The State of Tennessee has begun offering accessible absentee ballots for people with print disabilities in response to a demand by Disability Rights Tennessee (DRT) in collaboration with the Civil Rights Education and Enforcement Center and National Federation of the Blind of Tennessee. The recent expansion of absentee voting during the COVID-19 pandemic is offering many a pathway to exercise their right to vote without risking exposure to the virus. However, until now absentee voting in Tennessee has not been accessible to voters with print disabilities due to the use of paper ballots. A print disability interferes with the ability to effectively read, write, or use print materials and includes blindness, low vision, and some physical disabilities such as paralysis. The new accessible absentee ballot process allows voters with print disabilities to use supporting technology like screen readers and others to complete absentee voting forms. “This month we celebrate the 30th Anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The State’s decision is a timely reminder that it is possible to ensure that public services are available for all,” says Brian Keller, DRT Public Policy and Voting Attorney. This new offering by Tennessee ensures that people with print disabilities will be able to exercise their right to vote independently and privately while voting absentee, not only during the current crisis, but in future elections as well. “We are pleased that the state moved swiftly to secure the rights of blind voters without the need for litigation,” said Terry Smith, President of the National Federation of the Blind of Tennessee. “Equal access to voting...

Happy Anniversary ADA!

July 26, 2020 is the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). During these 30 years, people with disabilities and their allies have used the ADA to reshape our society. Many people with disabilities have a place at the table and a clear path to get there both figuratively and literally. And yet much work remains to be done. This significant anniversary is a time to celebrate the many successes and renew our commitment to continued advocacy until all the barriers are gone and disability discrimination exists only as a part of history. The foundational concepts of the ADA are accessibility and equality. These concepts overlap. So, for example, holding an event in a room that’s not accessible for wheelchair users is equivalent to posting a “no wheelchair users allowed” sign even if the organizers have no objection to people with mobility disabilities attending. Similarly, when a doctor’s office refuses to provide a sign language interpreter to a deaf patient, that office may as well say they don’t serve deaf people since they’re not offering equal services. There can be no accessibility without equality and vice versa. I’ve had the good fortune to practice disability rights law for over 20 years. One of the things I love about this area of law is the variety of issues. People with all types of disabilities are protected by the ADA. And, with a little creativity and persistence, the ADA can be applied in some way to almost every situation and barrier. Early on the focus of ADA advocacy was physical accessibility for people with mobility disabilities. And that’s still...

Complaint Successfully Nudges Tennessee Forward

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE Tenneseans with Disabilities Welcome State’s Improved Guidelines: Revisions Prohibit Discrimination in Healthcare Rationing June 26, 2020 NASHVILLE, TN  – Tennessee has issued revised guidance prohibiting healthcare providers from discriminating against people with disabilities even when public health emergencies such as the COVID-19 pandemic necessitate rationing of scarce resources. In response to a complaint filed by disability rights advocates (View complaint), the Tennessee Department of Health and COVID-19 Unified Command have revised the “Guidance for the Ethical Allocation of Scarce Resources During a Community-Wide Public Health Emergency as Declared by the Governor of Tennessee.” The revised document replaces the prior version released in July 2016 (View revised document). The revised guidance has effectively put Tennessee health providers on notice: Tennesseans with disabilities must be treated equally in healthcare decisions including those made during the COVID-19 pandemic or other public health emergencies. The protections of the Americans with Disabilities (ADA) and similar laws are not curtailed during emergencies. “We appreciate Tennessee’s prompt response to our complaint and willingness to meet the needs of people with disabilities by addressing issues beyond those we initially raised,” said Brian Keller, Public Policy Attorney at Disability Rights Tennessee. Key revisions to the guidelines include: Removal of categorical exclusions based on disability in favor of individual assessments. An individual can no longer be excluded from treatment based solely on a diagnosed disability. Narrowing the scope of survivability assessments from one year to imminent survival. Requiring reasonable modifications when necessary due to disability. This includes modifications to survivability assessment tools. For example, a person’s speech disability may negatively impact these assessments even though she...

CREEC and Others Call on Governor Polis to Stop COVID-19 From Becoming a Death Sentence for People in Prisons

As COVID-19 outbreaks continue to climb in Colorado prisons, CREEC joined others calling on Governor Polis to assert his executive authority and clemency powers to protect the most vulnerable people in prisons before it’s too late. The letter cited new data proving that his actions to date are insufficient to protect the lives of elderly and medically compromised people in prisons, correctional staff, and the community at large. While Colorado’s COVID-19 curve may be flattening for those who are free, the public health crisis is reaching a fever pitch for people who are incarcerated. A recent article revealed that testing at the Sterling Correctional Facility, now the site of the state’s 2nd largest COVID-19 outbreak, has confirmed that at least 278 people there — 266 incarcerated people and 12 staff members — have tested positive for the virus, many of whom are asymptomatic. At four other U.S. state prisons, 96% of the nearly 3,300 people who tested positive also showed no symptoms for the virus, further illustrating that simply isolating those who seem sick from those who appear well is not enough to halt the spread. At least one man died from contracting COVID-19 at Sterling — he was 86-years-old. ACLU-Colorado and eight criminal justice and indigent defense organizations sent a letter to the Governor on March 17 urging him to take decisive action to depopulate prisons and jails. The Governor later issued an Executive Order, which granted Colorado Department of Corrections Director Dean Williams the broad authority to consider releasing more than 7,000 people. But that order has been ineffective. More than a month after the Governor’s executive...

Letter to Gov. Polis Urging Protection of Rights and Access to Care of People with Disabilities During COVID-19 Pandemic

CREEC and 19 other organizations sent this letter to Colorado Governor Jared Polis. You’ll find the complete list of participating organizations in the signature section of this letter. All footnotes and links to signatory organizations are at the end of the letter. March 25, 2020 Re: Survival of People with Disabilities during COVID-19 Pandemic Dear Governor Polis, We want to start this letter by thanking you for your extraordinary leadership during this crisis. Unlike our peers in other states, we are being included in policy decisions and working closely with members of your team (like Elisabeth Arenales) and your cabinet (Kim Bimestefer, Michelle Barnes, Jill Hunsaker-Ryan, and others). We appreciate being involved and allowed to help your administration make the best possible decisions in a horrible situation. People with disabilities and chronic health conditions are doubly vulnerable during the COVID-19 crisis: they are vulnerable to acquiring the virus and to suffering more severe effects, and they are vulnerable to healthcare discrimination that may deny them necessary care. As a result, Coloradans with disabilities and chronic health conditions are experiencing escalating fear and anxiety, on top of any physical effects of viral illness. We need your continued leadership to communicate and ensure that Colorado will protect the rights and access to care of disabled people of all ages. Colorado has a strong and united disability community that includes ADAPT, Centers for Independent Living, Arc Chapters, Disability Law Colorado, numerous organizations representing specific disability groups such as the Colorado Metal Wellness Network, the National Federation of the Blind Colorado chapter, and the Colorado Commission for the Deaf, Hard of Hearing, and...

TDOC Needs to Stop Denying Effective Communication

Today, CREEC and Disability Rights Tennessee (DRT) filed a Complaint seeking access to effective communication for deaf and hard of hearing individuals in Tennessee Department of Correction (TDOC) custody as required by law.   Kevin Trivette is deaf and his primary language is American Sign Language (ASL); like many people who are deaf, he understands English only as a second language. While in the custody of the Tennessee Department of Correction (TDOC) Mr. Trivette was repeatedly denied crucial – and legally mandated – sign language communication for medical appointments, required classes, and religious services. TDOC also denied him a videophone, which he needed to communicate with his loved ones. Unfortunately, Mr. Trivette is not alone. TDOC routinely denies deaf and hard of hearing inmates qualified sign language interpreters and videophones. These unlawful and potentially harmful denials of effective communication to deaf and hard of hearing individuals who are incarcerated is a pattern of behavior at TDOC. Today, Civil Rights Education and Enforcement Center (CREEC) and Disability Rights Tennessee (DRT) filed a Complaint in the federal district court for the Middle District of Tennessee on behalf of Mr. Trivette and DRT. The suit is based on violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (Section 504). The ADA and Section 504 require that state prisons provide inmates in their custody with equal access to programs and services, including providing sign language interpreters and videophones when needed for effective communication, and equal access to phone privileges. “I want people to know deaf people have rights. We need access to communication for things like doctor’s appointments...