Superior Court program supports jurors with disabilities

It began with a 2019 court case. A blind juror was selected with a commitment from both sides that their witnesses would be descriptive enough to work with the juror. In this case, the lawyers were enthusiastic to make it work. And according to King County Superior Court Judge David Keenan, a judge has a duty to “figure out a way to make it work.”  But the juror’s ability to hear descriptive evidence wasn’t the only issue. Jurors are required to take notes on a court-issued notepad and they’re not allowed to review those notes until deliberations. This particular juror used a laptop with a screen reader that would speak the notes back to him to ensure they were accurate.

Presiding over that case, Judge Keenan realized that, while accessibility issues were nothing new, there wasn’t really a robust process in place to help the court system support people with disabilities. When you have a deaf juror, you can get an American Sign Language interpreter. But what about the many other disability situations? This issue got him thinking.

A team effort

Along with Washington Supreme Court Justice G. Helen Whitener, King County Superior Court Judge David Whedbee, Washington Supreme Court Interpreter Commission Director Robert Lichtenberg, and Pam Ditman of the Office of the Administrator of the Courts, they recruited a team of panelists who worked together on a webinar training. Among other matters, the Administrative Office of the Courts trains and educates Washington court officials about technology considerations to increase equity and inclusion for people with all types of disabilities. This presentation was put together specifically about juries and inclusive justice. The panel consisted of Justice Whitener, Judge Whedbee, Judge Keenan, and Speech Language Pathologist Donna Cole Wilson.

Wilson is an expert in Augmentative and Alternative Communication. For the webinar, she and Judge Keenan talked about the various technology and accommodations that can be used to support jurors with disabilities to fully participate. They covered technology that is available for people who cannot rely on oral speech, who have limited or no vision or hearing, or other physical challenges, as well as individuals with learning differences. The two presented on the assistive technology and accessibility options in Zoom that are available to enable more inclusive juror participation.

Justice Whitener led the program, highlighting the importance of working with individuals in our community living with disabilities, ensuring that they have equal and equitable access to every aspect of legal system, including jury service. In addition, Judge David Whedbee gave a thorough and engaging presentation on the statutes, court rules, and case law under the Americans with Disabilities Act which govern the often-challenging considerations judges must analyze when working with prospective jurors living with disabilities.  

Washington Supreme Court Justice Helen Whitener discussed how our courts can now think creatively and make situations work with implementing technologies and accommodations. Justice Whitener encouraged judges to start with a ‘yes’ and from there work toward the logistical and technological ways to make it happen.  

“One of the most effective elements to the training was the interview with the blind juror,” Judge Keenan said. The juror “said ‘the first thing a juror should be asked is how would you like to be helped?’ It was elemental, but powerful.”

The feedback on the training has been extremely positive. Judges Keenan and Whedbee have taken what they’ve learned to create a technology-based reasonable accommodations bench card. “It’s a kind of cheat sheet for judges that includes information like legal requirements and potential resources,” Judge Keenan explained.