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Best Practices and Technology to Better Serve Self-Represented Litigants with Low Literacy or Visual Impairments

Posted by Yelitza Conover on July 14, 2016

When self-represented litigants (SRLs) seek help from Maryland Court Self-Help Centers, Maryland Law Libraries, and other access to justice programs, they may need special assistance to use the resources available at these centers.

Imagine this everyday scenario: a staff member identifies the SRL’s legal issue and proceeds to help the SRL by looking up the relevant section in a law publication, by pulling-up a Plain English article on a legal topic, by downloading a template for a court form, or by handing them a pamphlet with referral information.

In this scenario, the services provider has exchanged words with the SRL without being aware of their difficulties with reading and writing. Almost 21 million Americans report vision problems, and 3.4 million over 40 are legally blind. Many Americans face barriers accessing basic corrective vision care. According to the U.S. Department of Education, National Institute of Literacy, 1 in 7 adults lack basic literacy skills, severely hindering their ability to participate in the judicial process.

Many adults will hide their difficulties rather than ask for help. They may become embarrassed or antagonistic if their literacy difficulties start to show. This can lead to unresolved legal issues.

WHAT CAN LEGAL SERVICE PROVIDERS DO TO HELP?

IDENTIFY LITERACY ISSUES

If you come across the following situations, you may have come across someone who has trouble reading and writing:

  • The SRL wants to read/complete a document at home;
  • The SRL uses excuses to get you to explain/read/write information for them, like they forgot their glasses, need to leave early for another appointment, have bad handwriting;
  • The SRL tries to memorize information given rather than writing it down or asking for written information;
  • The SRL presents documents with spelling errors;
  • The SRL misses appointments when notified in writing to appear;
  • The SRL mispronounces words with more than three syllables, or with more complex sounds.

BE A SAFE, NEUTRAL SPACE

  • Create a climate of trust where the SRL can be confident in accessing the court.
  • Many people with literacy issues think they are alone in their problem. It may help to confide that you often meet people who have difficulties reading and writing and offer to help.

 BEST PRACTICES

  • Use simple vocabulary and short sentences and rephrase ideas.
  • Don’t talk to the person as if they were a child.
  • Simplify technical vocabulary by providing information and forms in Plain English, if possible.
  • Avoid numerous abbreviations which often mean nothing to the SRL.
  • Give short clear summaries of documents, covering the main information.
  • Avoid correspondence and reminders by email or mail. Call instead. Orally verify dates.

TECHNOLOGY

  • Text-to-speech (TTS) is the ability of a computer or mobile device to play back written text as spoken words.
  • TTS for reading Word Documents: Make TTS software and headphones available at computer stations if you sense that SRLs prefer to have documents read to them. Microsoft allows users to hear most text that appears on a screen in Word, Outlook, PowerPoint, and OneNote. How to Configure (MS Word):
    1. Locate the Customize Quick Access Tool Bar dropdown.
    2. Click More Commands.
    3. In the Choose commands from list, select All Commands.
    4. Scroll down to the Speak command, select, and then click Add.
    5. Click OK.
    6. To use text-to-speech, highlight the text you want read and hit the Speak Selected Text button that now appears on the Quick Access Tool Bar (looks like dialog bubble). 
  • TTS for reading Web Pages: Apps like Chrome Speakcan read aloud any selected piece of text within the browser.
    1. Hit Launch App from the Chrome Web Store.
    2. Choose options like language and volume from the Options page.
    3. To have a web page read aloud, the user should be able to select any text, right click, and hit Read the selected text.
  • TTS for Mobile Devices This may be helpful for navigating the Maryland Law App. Most smart phones and tablets have some TTS option already installed. Users just need to go to their settings to turn them on. For most devices:
    1. Go to your device’s Settings.
    2. Choose Accessibility.
    3. Choose speak OR Text-to-speech output.
    4. Turn on TSS. 
  • Other free, downloadable TTS programs/apps: There are many free online programs/apps for computers and mobile devices that allow users to paste text into or open files directly. Users can search their device’s app store or try one of the following popular apps:
    • WordTalk is a free Windows text to speech plugin for Microsoft Word. WordTalk will highlight each word it as it reads the document. WordTalk also contains a talking dictionary and a text-to-mp3 converter.
    • PowerTalk automatically speaks text in Microsoft PowerPoint presentations. PowerTalk can speak text as it appears on a slideshow and can speak hidden text attached to images.
    • QR voice encodes a given text message into QR code (a two-dimensional barcode which has encoded any kind of data) that once scanned by a QR scanner smartphone application, reproduces the message with a synthesized voice. QR voice allows users to convert text to speech, generate QR Code for speech URL, and simplify share text to speech files.
      • This app may help SRLs with directional information. Place a QR code at the bottom of signs giving instructions and directions. Mobile device users can scan the QR code and have sign read aloud.
  • Audio/Visual Materials:
    • YouTube: Search YouTube to find informational “How To” materials made by courts, law schools, and legal organizations. Experts will explain legal topics relevant to SRLs like court filing procedures. For instance:
      1. Federal Judiciary YouTube Channel offers a Bankruptcy Basics playlist to help the public understand the process of filing for bankruptcy.
      2. Maryland Courts provide several Self-Help Videos to help SRLs navigate courts.
  • Online Webinars:Presentation, lecture, workshop, or seminar transmitted over the Web using video conferencing software. Webinars allow SRLs to be interactive with media because the video conference allows users to discuss information live. Recent webinars for SRLs include:
    1. The Maryland Judiciary webinars on topics like, “How to File for Divorce” and “How to File in the District Court of Maryland.”
    2. Other statewide webinars can be found posted on the People’s Law Library of Maryland’s Clinic Calendar.

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