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Breaking barriers: Communications access in local government

What makes it difficult to guarantee communications access to local government operations – and what technologies are available to help?

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How do local governments ensure equal communications access to ALL community members?

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By Melissa Pond

Effective communication is the lifeblood of local government, connecting officials with residents and ensuring policies and services are accessible to all. However, communications access has become increasingly complex in today’s diverse and technology-driven society. This article will explore why communications access is a critical issue for local government and highlight some available solutions. Additionally, we’ll examine grant opportunities and other funding sources, including a grant from the Massachusetts Office on Disability to complete the federally required Americans with Disabilities Act Self-Evaluation and Transition Plan.

The Significance of Communications Access in Local Government

Local government plays a pivotal role in the lives of residents. It provides essential services, enforces regulations and makes decisions that impact communities daily. Communication access is vital to ensure these services and decisions reach everyone, regardless of their abilities or backgrounds. Here’s why it’s a pressing issue:

  • Diverse Communities: Localities are home to diverse populations with varying abilities, languages and communication needs. Ensuring accessibility means reaching every community member, regardless of their circumstances.
  • Legal Obligations: Ensuring equal access and participation in government services and events for all individuals, regardless of language proficiency or disabilities, is rooted in two crucial pieces of legislation: the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination based on race, color, national origin, sex and religion, emphasizing equal access to public services and benefits. Simultaneously, the ADA mandates accessibility across public life for individuals with disabilities, ensuring equal access to services, employment, transportation and accommodations. Both laws highlight the importance of effective communication, emphasizing the need to remove language barriers for individuals with limited English proficiency and providing tailored communication services for those who are deaf, hard of hearing, blind or visually impaired, thus ensuring equal participation and non-discrimination.
  • Enhanced Engagement: Accessible communications foster community engagement and participation. When residents can understand information, engage with their government and access services, it leads to a more inclusive and informed citizenry.

Challenges in Communications Access

Despite its importance, achieving adequate communications access in local government can take time and effort. Here are some common hurdles:

  • Diverse Abilities: Residents with disabilities may face barriers in accessing information or participating in civic activities. This includes individuals with visual, hearing, cognitive or mobility impairments.
  • Language Barriers: Multilingual communities require translated materials and interpretation services to ensure language does not impede access to vital information.
  • Complex Technologies: As government services move online, navigating digital platforms can be challenging for some residents, particularly those with limited digital literacy or access to technology.

Solutions for Communications Access

Addressing communications access challenges involves a multi-faceted approach:

  • Plain Language: Prioritizing plain language as the cornerstone of communication ensures messages are universally understood and accessible to diverse audiences.
  • Telecommunications Relay Services: Implementing services like the 711 Relay Service bridges communication gaps for individuals with hearing or speech disabilities, fostering equitable access to telecommunication services.
  • PDF Remediation: Before posting documents online, governments can prioritize PDF remediation to ensure documents are accessible and usable by individuals with disabilities.
  • Braille Labeling: Acquiring 6-dot Braille Label Makers enables the creation of tactile labels for enhanced accessibility for the visually impaired.
  • Simultaneous Interpretation Equipment: State-of-the-art equipment enables real-time language translation during events, ensuring all attendees can participate fully.
  • CART Services: Communication Access Realtime Translation (CART) services provide transcribed spoken content in real-time, making it accessible to individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing.
  • Translation & Interpretation Services: Partnering with qualified translators and interpreters facilitates effective cross-language communication, ensuring information and services are accessible to residents who speak languages other than English. These services break down language barriers and promote inclusivity, making government resources and engagement opportunities readily available to diverse linguistic communities. Communities should consider acquiring tablets to promote the usage of apps that provide on-demand interpretation and simultaneous interpreting equipment for live, in-person events.

Grant Opportunities for Local Governments

Local governments often require funding to implement these solutions effectively. Fortunately, several grant opportunities are available to support initiatives that enhance communications access:

  • Massachusetts Office on Disability (MOD): The MOD offers grants to assist municipalities in evaluating their accessibility and developing transition plans to improve accessibility over time.
  • Federal Grants: Federal grants, like those provided through the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services or the U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development, may offer funding for accessibility projects, particularly disability accommodations.
  • Local and State Grants: Many local and state-level organizations offer grants and funding opportunities to support accessibility and communications access initiatives.
  • Private Foundations: Private foundations and organizations that support diverse communities may have funding available for accessibility initiatives.

Access for All

Local governments must address communications access comprehensively to ensure inclusivity and compliance with legal obligations. By prioritizing accessibility; embracing solutions like plain language, telecommunications relay services, PDF remediation, and translation and interpretation services; and leveraging available grant opportunities, local governments can break down barriers and create an environment where all residents can engage fully and access essential services.

About the author

Melissa Pond is a dedicated advocate for community development, with over 15 years of experience in the public sector and a master’s degree in Nonprofit Management from Northeastern University. Melissa began as a teacher in an Asian and Asian-American after-school program, which exposed her to the critical need for language services. As a Community Development Planner, Melissa made significant strides in communication access for persons with disabilities and limited English proficiency by developing an $895,000 initiative over four years. Melissa has also actively served on nonprofit and government executive and advisory boards and as an adjunct faculty member. Through her venture, Melissa J Pond LLC, she empowers individuals and organizations in communication, grant writing and more.

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