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Effective Communication for Persons Who Are Deaf or Hard of Hearing

Effective communication with a qualified person who is deaf or hard of hearing is communication that allows the person an equal opportunity to participate in, and enjoy the benefits of, a service, program, or activity.

What laws apply to effective communication for people who are deaf or hard of hearing?

Section 504

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Section 504) forbids public and private entities that receive financial assistance from any federal department or agency (“covered entities”) from excluding qualified individuals with disabilities or denying them an equal opportunity to receive program benefits and services.


The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) protects individuals with disabilities in employment, state and local government services, public accommodations (most private offices and businesses), transportation, and telecommunications.

Who is protected under these laws?

These laws protect qualified individuals with disabilities:

  • Has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities (such as hearing, speaking, sleeping, thinking, learning, working or the operation of a major bodily function)
  • Has a record of such an impairment
  • Is regarded as having such an impairment

To receive services, education, or training, qualified individuals with disabilities must, with or without reasonable modifications, meet the essential eligibility requirements for the specific service, program, or activity.


  • A 40-year old person who is deaf would not be a qualified individual with a disability for a program limited to people over 65.
  • A 7-year old child who is hard of hearing would probably be a qualified individual with a disability for a vaccination program that is provided to all school-age children.

What are auxiliary aids and services?

Auxiliary aids and services may be:

  • qualified interpreters*
  • note takers
  • transcription services
  • written materials
  • telephone handset amplifiers
  • assistive listening devices
  • assistive listening systems
  • telephones compatible with hearing aids closed caption decoders, open and closed captioning
  • text telephones (TTYs)
  • videotext displays, or other effective methods of making aurally delivered** materials available to individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing

* "Qualified interpreter” means an interpreter who is able to interpret effectively, accurately, and impartially, both receptively and expressively, using any necessary specialized vocabulary.

** “Aurally delivered information” means information that is delivered through sound, including through speech, intercoms, telephones, recorded messages, loudspeakers, alarms, etc.

What should I do if I need auxiliary aid or service?

As soon as possible:

  • Let the entity know that you are deaf or hard of hearing
  • Ask for the auxiliary aid or service you think you need (interpreter, notepaper, etc.)

Who decides on the aid or service?

The covered entity is responsible for ensuring that effective communication happens.

Generally, the entity should consult with you and give primary consideration to fulfilling your request. They may use a substitute if the alternative also provides effective communication. If an auxiliary aid or service is needed, the entity must provide it free of cost, after considering:

  • How many people are participating in the communication and their individual characteristics
  • The particular situation or context and the nature, length, complexity, and importance of the communication
  • Whether a fundamental alteration of the program or service or would result in an undue burden. This decision must be made on a case-by-case basis.

Example Scenario:

A person who is deaf went to the doctor’s office to have a blood test. The doctor knew that the visit would be very short and that there would be very little communication during the visit. After consulting with the individual, the doctor determined that an interpreter was not needed, and that writing notes and gestures would be effective for this patient in this situation. For the next appointment to discuss the results of the blood test and to talk about treatment decisions, the doctor provided an interpreter. In making these decisions, the doctor consulted with the individual, thought about the needs of the individual, the circumstances, the importance, nature, and complexity of the communication, and whether providing an interpreter would constitute an undue burden under the law.

What if I think the communication is not effective?

You can tell the service provider if you think the communication is not, or will not be, effective. You should tell the provider why you think it is not effective.

Example Scenario:

A deaf parent of a child in a Head Start program requested a meeting with the Director to talk about problems with her child’s teacher. The Director asked a teacher who was a close friend of the child’s teacher to serve as an interpreter. The parent told the Director that she thought an outside interpreter should be obtained because the interpreter might not be able to remain impartial.

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Content created by Office for Civil Rights (OCR)
Content last reviewed on June 16, 2017