Meetings that had mainly just consisted of the board members now had dozens of tenants attending remotely, calling attention to maintenance and access issues
Last year, I participated in the production of a multimedia piece by the Christian Science Monitor about how the COVID pandemic has actually opened up more work opportunities to many people in the disability community as it mainstreamed telecommuting in the job force.
As a disabled writer and reporter, I was brought onto the project as a consultant with lived experience on the issue. For most of my adult life, my ability and the extent to which I could work has been tenuous, usually dependent on the willingness of my managers and employers to allow me to work from home. Often, telecommuting was an option I was deprived of altogether or only occasionally granted. In fact, this was the primary reason I eventually went freelance—it was the only way to work with the flexibility my health status demanded.
Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which celebrated its 30th anniversary last year, a disabled employee has the right to request reasonable accommodations at their workplace. Prior to the pandemic, the courts had produced mixed opinions over whether remote work was a tenable reasonable accommodation under the ADA. Once COVID struck and all of United States society was faced with similar health risks many disabled people experience as their default, suddenly there was no question about it: telecommuting was a valid form of working.
But the workplace is not the only arena where the ADA applies. It also applies to public meetings hosted by municipal and state boards, commissions, and committees.
At the onset of the pandemic in March 2020, Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker issued an executive order that suspended certain provisions under Open Meeting Law, basically enabling public bodies to conduct their meetings remotely as well as allowing remote access and participation by the public.
Anecdotally, many people have attested that remote meetings have increased public participation—in many cases, substantially. And it has been a boon to disabled folks like myself, who now have the ability to attend public meetings to which we were previously excluded, and to have our voices heard on policies that disproportionately impact us.
“Remote meetings have engaged more residents than ever before and have significantly increased transparency and insight into government operations and decision-making,” Massachusetts Municipal Association (MMA) Executive Director Geoff Beckwith wrote in a letter to Baker.
This reported increase in public participation has also been evident at my local housing authority meetings—which manages HUD-owned Section 8 properties as well as manages over 400 Section 8 voucher holders (including me) in the Town of Arlington. Meetings that previously usually only consisted of the board members themselves now had dozens of their tenants and other members of the public attending remotely, calling attention to maintenance and access issues.
According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, nearly half of people who live in Section 8 properties or hold Section 8 vouchers are disabled and/or elderly, so remote access democratized opportunities for the populations usually overlooked or who face overwhelming barriers in accessing public meetings.
However, this expanded access was threatened this month by the expiration (on June 15) of Baker’s executive order enabling remote meetings for public bodies, reverting to requirements for in-person meetings only, basically overnight. Though state lawmakers passed a bill that Baker signed into law the very next day that updated the Mass open-meeting law so that public meetings can be held in-person, remotely, or using remote-hybrid options until April 2022, it still leaves potential gaps for disabled folks.
“One issue is if the state agency or city or town chooses in-person [meetings] only, can they be required to go remote as part of an ADA accommodation request?” Rick Glassman of the Disability Law Center noted.
Glassman said that widespread availability to access remote options for public meetings is something that the disability community has been asking for for years, only to be told it’s not possible. But COVID showed it’s not only possible, but can be achieved in a short amount of time with minimal problems.
All circumstances considered, Glassman also thinks that this means people with disabilities are in a much stronger position to request a city or town to hold remote meetings going forward.
However, that did not stop my local housing authority from denying my own reasonable accommodation request for remote access to their annual meeting on June 16, the same day Baker signed the updated law (the meeting itself had initially been advertised as remote until a few days before Baker’s initial emergency order lapsed). I responded by filing a formal reasonable accommodation request for remote access to the meeting under Title II of the ADA.
After I forwarded messages from the state attorney general encouraging public bodies to offer remote options to the public, my housing authority maintained the denial of my ADA request by claiming it would impose an “undue administrative or financial burden.” Yet, the housing authority did not elaborate on how offering me the opportunity to call or Zoom into this meeting would pose such a burden, even though places that deny ADA requests are expected to adequately justify their reasoning. They asserted the meeting was in a “handicap-accessible” location, while ignoring that fact wasn’t relevant to my specific health needs. I am immuno-compromised and my COVID vaccinations have not taken full effect yet, so attending in-person meetings poses a risk to my health.
While numbers of COVID are significantly down in Mass, new research suggests that those of us with compromised immune systems are less protected by vaccinations and that some vaccinations are also potentially less effective against some of the emerging variants (such as the Pfizer vaccine against the new Delta variant). Other disabled folks in a similar situation have also reported receiving ADA accommodation denials this week for upcoming public meetings.
Laura Sabadini, 49, of Weymouth also had their reasonable accommodation request for remote access to a public hearing scheduled on June 21 denied because they claimed to not be set up for hybrid meetings.
“I feel like the only explanation for this lack of preparation is that they weren’t thinking of disabled people and others who remain at high COVID risk,” Sabadini said. “They never plan for us [disabled people] and it’s pretty awful to have to choose between your safety and your right to participate in public meetings.”
Glassman explains that there is concern in the disability community that public bodies may claim that hybrid meetings are too complicated or expensive, and that may lead to rejections of remote access. But due to the precedent set by COVID, he believes disabled people have the right to request that if hybrid options aren’t available, a given meeting should then be offered 100% remote as the alternative.
“We now know because of COVID that state agencies are perfectly capable of holding remote meetings,” Glassman said.
This is also why a proposed hardship-waiver program allowing municipalities to opt out of offering remote options claiming expense or difficulty could potentially conflict with federal law if and when disabled people make ADA accommodation requests for virtual access to meetings.
“Any such [hardship waiver] statute should make clear that the state attorney general’s office has no jurisdiction to give a hardship waiver under Title II of the ADA,” Glassman said.
Finally, there are also concerns that even when remote options are offered, they may not be fully accessible—such as lacking closed captions or other critical features—unless such features are provided by the remote platform chosen or through accommodations offered to those who request them.
These potential issues with remote access seem to be why organizations like the Disability Law Center, the Disability Policy Consortium, and the Boston Center for Independent Living support permanent adoption of comprehensive remote options for all public meetings in the state.
In the meantime, my local housing authority still maintained the denial of my ADA accommodation request for its annual meeting despite all my efforts. Let’s just hope that’s not a sign of what disabled people requesting remote access to public meetings will be experiencing in the state going forward.