Deaf Kansan files federal lawsuit to compel Legislature to accommodate people with hearing loss

State investing $3M to boost audio, visual access to House and Senate

Chris Haulmark, an Olathe resident who is deaf, filed a federal lawsuit seeking the state's compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act by upgrading online communications of Kansas Legislature's committee meetings and chamber deliberations. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)
Chris Haulmark, an Olathe resident who is deaf, filed a federal lawsuit seeking the state's compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act by upgrading online communications of Kansas Legislature's committee meetings and chamber deliberations. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — Olathe resident Chris Haulmark filed a federal civil rights lawsuit alleging Kansas to be in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act and seeking improved access for people with hearing impairments to broadcast services of the legislative branch of state government.

Haulmark, who is deaf and used sign language in YouTube videos to announce his 2018 campaign for the Kansas House, contended the state of Kansas, the Kansas Legislative Services and Tom Day, director of legislative services, fell short of ADA compliance by failing to deliver for the public “equally effective communication” of House and Senate action. The legislative services branch is responsible for administrative and technical support of the Legislature under direction of the bipartisan Legislative Coordinating Council.

Day declined to comment Thursday on the lawsuit, but said the Legislature’s ongoing project to create a “virtual statehouse” would outfit more than a dozen committee rooms with equipment to match audio and visual streaming of the House and Senate chambers. In addition, Day said the project had “as a top priority to close caption all video streams.”

Haulmark’s lawsuit asserted his constitutional rights were violated by the state’s unwillingness to enable him to observe legislative activity in real time, like individuals without a hearing disability are able to do. He said solutions available to the state included captioning, transcripts and sign language interpreters. He included in his court filing correspondence starting in January 2019 with Kansas Legislative Services that registered his ADA complaints.

“The defendants have blatantly disregarded and refused to furnish the necessary effective communication, auxiliary aids and equal participation,” Haulmark said in the lawsuit.

Haulmark said display of an “audio only” notice on the Legislature’s online broadcast services suggested it was permissible to close “deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals out from participating in the political process.”

The state maintains a free public website with livestreamed audio of Senate and House committee meetings at the Capitol. In addition, the public has been able to view and listen on YouTube to floor debates of both chambers of the Legislature. Reliance on online services from the Capitol has expanded during the COVID-19 pandemic, especially for interim meetings of the Legislature. However, Haulmark said in the lawsuit automatic machine-generated captioning sometimes available “still fails to provide effective communication.”

The state set aside $3 million for new audio and visual technology at the Capitol in anticipation public access would be improved ahead of the 2021 legislative session scheduled for mid-January.

During the pandemic, news conferences livestreamed from at the statehouse by Gov. Laura Kelly have been accompanied by a sign-language interpreter.

Day and Haulmark corresponded by letter and email during the past two years regarding Kansas Open Records Act requests for records of audio streamings and videos. Haulmark sought access to transcripts of audio-only committee meetings that occurred during the 2019 legislative session.

In response, Day said KORA didn’t require production of transcripts from legislative committee meetings. He denied Haulmark’s request for the nonexistent records. Day estimated it would cost Haulmark $153,000 to pay for production of transcripts from the requested audio recordings. Given the substantial cost, Day suggested an alternative.

“We would be happy to consider a narrowed request for committee meetings of particular interest to you,” Day told Haulmark by letter.

Haulmark, who requested a jury trial in U.S. District Court in Topeka, said he had been deaf since he was one year old. An audio headset doesn’t provide him with effective communication access. He prefers to communicate through American Sign Language, but can watch videos with assistance of captioning.

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Tim Carpenter
Tim Carpenter has reported on Kansas for 35 years. He covered the Capitol for 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal and previously worked for the Lawrence Journal-World and United Press International. He has been recognized for investigative reporting on Kansas government and politics. He won the Kansas Press Association's Victor Murdock Award six times. The William Allen White Foundation honored him four times with its Burton Marvin News Enterprise Award. The Kansas City Press Club twice presented him its Journalist of the Year Award and more recently its Lifetime Achievement Award. He earned an agriculture degree at Kansas State University and grew up on a small dairy and beef cattle farm in Missouri. He is an amateur woodworker and drives Studebaker cars.