- Massachusetts Office on Disability
Towns have an obligation under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to:
- Make their Town Meetings  accessible to people with disabilities and
- Respond to requests for reasonable accommodations at Town Meetings.
This memorandum aims to provide guidance on these obligations.
Making Town Meetings accessible to people with disabilities
Title II of the ADA prohibits discrimination based on disability in state and local government services, programs, and activities. 42 USC § 12132. Practically, this means that towns must make their Town Meetings accessible to people with disabilities by providing accessible meeting spaces and proactively considering what accessibility features may be necessary to allow people with disabilities to meaningfully participate in the meeting. 
Provide a primary location that is accessible to all
A town should make every attempt to provide a primary location that is accessible to all, and providing a secondary accessible location should only be used as a last resort.  When considering the accessibility of a meeting location, towns should consider whether:
- The meeting location can be accessed without climbing steps.
- Accessible parking spots and ADA-accessible restrooms are nearby and accessible without climbing steps or navigating other barriers.
- There are good lines of sight and appropriate levels of light in the room to allow a deaf individual to see a sign language interpreter.
- The room contains assistive listening devices, such as a sound loop.
- The room has appropriate AV connections/equipment to support communication services such as Communication Access Realtime Translation (CART), remote American Sign Language (ASL) interpreting, or remote participation, if needed.
- The room has adequate clearance for a person to navigate with a wheelchair or other mobility device (e.g., wide enough aisles, open space to pull a chair up to a meeting table).
If a town has traditionally held its Town Meeting in an inaccessible auditorium or gym, the town must consider other possible venues. The town may want to consider applying for a Municipal ADA Improvement Grant in order to improve the accessibility of its Town Meeting venue.
Programmatic accessibility of Town Meetings
Towns must also consider the programmatic accessibility of their meetings. When planning and advertising a meeting, towns should:
- Include contact information for the municipal ADA Coordinator on all meeting notices and Town Meeting warrants, so residents know who to contact for reasonable accommodations/modifications. An example of appropriate language for a meeting notice would include “Town of ___ does not discriminate based on disability and is committed to hosting accessible meetings. To request a reasonable accommodation to attend Town Meeting, please contact the municipal ADA Coordinator ______ at ______.”
- Consider booking communication services such as CART or sign language interpretation early. These services can be booked through the Massachusetts Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing’s (MCDHH) Interpreter Referral Program. Towns are advised to book these services at least two weeks in advance, ideally as soon as you know the date of the next Town Meeting. If no Town Meeting Members or other members of the public request CART or sign language interpretation, you can cancel the vendors up to two business days in advance of Town Meeting.
- To the extent possible, ensure that information about a meeting posted on the town’s website, including presentation materials, is accessible to and usable by people with disabilities. MOD’s website has guidance about how to ensure electronic documents are accessible.
- Train Town Meeting Moderators and other municipal staff about meeting accessibility, including:
- Providing verbal descriptions of images or print material being displayed and/or discussed.
- Considering alternative formats for people to provide public comment. For example, someone may need to provide their comment via ASL or some other nonverbal form of communication.
- Ensuring that people with disabilities can be heard during the public comment portion of a meeting if they cannot raise their hand or stand to approach the microphone to demonstrate the desire to speak.
Responding to requests for reasonable accommodations
Towns must make reasonable modifications to policies, practices and procedures related to Town Meeting when the modifications are necessary to provide equal access to individuals with disabilities, unless the town can demonstrate that making the modifications would fundamentally alter the nature of the Town Meeting. 
The interactive process
Towns must engage in the interactive process to determine the appropriate reasonable accommodation for a person with a disability.
Upon receipt of a request for reasonable modification, a town must engage in the interactive process with the requestor to determine the most appropriate method for accommodating the requestor’s needs. The town should discuss with the requestor how the functional limitation caused by their disability affects their ability to access Town Meeting.
The goal of the interactive process is to arrive at an accommodation that is feasible for the town and effective at providing access for the person with a disability. The town is not required to provide precisely the accommodation that the requestor asked for, but they must engage in the interactive process and attempt to arrive at a solution that will meet the person’s needs.
If the accommodation requested is reasonable on its face, the town can approve the accommodation without engaging in the interactive process. For example, a discussion with the requestor may not be required if they are simply requesting American Sign Language (ASL) interpretation at Town Meeting, as that request is facially reasonable. However, the town should never deny a reasonable accommodation without engaging in the interactive process.
It is usually not appropriate for the municipal ADA coordinator to request medical documentation regarding a person’s disability for ADA Title II requests. Rather, the town ADA Coordinator should take the requestor’s statements at face value.
In rare circumstances, it may be appropriate to ask a requestor for limited, tailored documentation of their disability-related need for a specific reasonable accommodation. This may happen when the disability-related need is not ascertainable after discussions with the requestor. Anyone with knowledge of the requestor's disability-related need (for example: a medical provider, social worker, or caregiver) can provide this documentation. Towns should ask for the least amount of information they need to assess the appropriateness of the request.
Sometimes, a person’s disability will necessitate remote participation. Remote participation may be an appropriate accommodation at Town Meeting. Massachusetts law does not bar remote participation at Town Meeting if it is provided as a reasonable modification under the ADA.
Providing a reasonable modification under the ADA is a separate legal requirement from the options available to municipalities under laws passed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Some towns have confused the obligation to provide remote access as a reasonable modification under the ADA with the option to provide remote participation under Chapter 2 of the Acts of 2023 (and its predecessors, Chapter 22 of the Acts of 2022 and Chapter 92 of the Acts of 2020). To clarify, the ongoing obligation to provide a reasonable modification under the ADA applies to all town programs, activities, and services, including Town Meetings (whether open or representative), and predates the COVID-19 pandemic.
The ADA requires towns to make reasonable modifications to its policies, practices, and procedures to allow people with disabilities to access town programs, activities, and services, including Town Meetings. Granting remote participation as a reasonable modification to the general rule that Open Town Meetings must be held in person does not change the nature of the meeting as a whole and does not make it a “hybrid” meeting in derogation of M.G. L. c. 39, § 9. Allowing individuals to participate remotely as a reasonable accommodation also does not make a Representative Town Meeting a remote or hybrid meeting under Chapter 2 of the Acts of 2023.
If a meeting is noticed as “in person” and the town grants a reasonable accommodation to an individual with a disability to participate remotely, the meeting remains an “in person” meeting. It does not become a “hybrid” meeting if remote participation is allowed solely as a reasonable accommodation under the ADA. This is the same principle as if the meeting were interpreted in American Sign Language (ASL) as an accommodation for a person with a disability: the meeting is still held in spoken English and does not become a meeting held in ASL just because an accommodation is provided for a person with a disability.
When considering the appropriateness of a request for remote participation at Town Meeting by a person with a disability, the town’s ADA Coordinator may inquire how the requestor’s functional limitations associated with their disability prevent them from attending in person. The town should consider whether it is administratively feasible to provide remote access. Remote access can come in a variety of forms, from very simple to very complex. For example, remote access could be as simple as a person with a disability watching the Town Meeting on the Local Access Cable Station and calling or texting the Moderator or an assistant Moderator if they wish to speak or vote on a warrant article. Remote access could also mean allowing participation via a web-meeting platform if the town has the technology infrastructure for this to be feasible. Towns that anticipate needing to upgrade their equipment and infrastructure to allow for remote participation at Town Meeting may want to consider applying for a Municipal ADA Improvement Grant to assist with funding this project.
For questions about this guidance, please contact the Massachusetts Office on Disability:
- When we refer to Town Meetings in this memo, we are referring to both Open Town Meetings under M.G. L. c. 39, § 9 and Representative Town Meetings under M.G.L. c. 43A.
- See, 28 CFR 35.130(a); 28 CFR 35.149; 28 CFR 35.150(a); 28 CFR 35.150(b)(1).
- 28 CFR 35.130(d).
- 28 CFR 35.130(b).