During the Perkins School for the Blind annual fundraising gala, Perkins Possibilities 2016, we witnessed the launch of the powerful social change campaign called BlindNewWorld. The campaign aims to help the sighted population break down barriers to blind inclusion like discomfort and fear and create a more blind-friendly world. This got us thinking: how can we do a better job of taking the needs of clients who are blind or visually impaired into account when designing our estate planning services? We came up with three ideas we want to share.
1. Keep document accessibility in mind.
- Acquaint yourself with the technology that provides support to individuals with visual impairments. For example, both Apple and Google have deployed advanced screen reading assistants on smartphones and operating systems to help users productively navigate their screens. The more attorneys understand how these technologies work, the better we can adapt our processes to optimize the communications our clients receive.
- If you are sending clients hard copies of documents to review with the assistance of technology, use larger text (either 14 or 16 point) on high-quality (non-glossy) paper. Smaller text sizes or glossy paper may interfere with assistive reading devices. A simpler font, such as Verdana or Arial, is also helpful.
- If you are sending clients electronic documents to review, be sure the documents are accessible. When drafting documents with Microsoft Word, use built-in styles (such as heading, body, etc.) rather than manually changing font sizes or applying bold and underline formatting to text. Adobe Reader also contains an “Accessibility Checker” function that will help you test your PDFs for accessibility. While sending documents in Word is preferred, if you must use a PDF, be sure to use text PDFs and not picture files.
- Use illustrations sparingly, because flowcharts and graphs may require either a short description or a complete equivalent explanation in text, depending on their complexity.
- EBU, the voice of blind and partially-sighted people in Europe, has posted a fantastic guide that explains in great detail how to create accessible documents.
2. Know you can translate your communications into braille easily and inexpensively.
- Many organizations, including Perkins School for the Blind, provide services for translating ordinary documents into braille. When we asked Perkins to translate the text of the Generation to Generation blog post titled, 7 Ways You Can Prepare for Your First Estate Planning Meeting, we discovered that the cost is surprisingly reasonable. For that reason, we have multiple braille copies of the post available on request.
- Be mindful, however, that most people who are blind don’t know braille. In 2009, National Federation of the Blind released a report indicating that only 10 percent of Americans with blindness can read braille. (By comparison, at the height of its use in the 1950s, more than half the nation’s blind children were learning braille.) The National Federation of the Blind report also noted that braille-literate people are more likely to attain higher levels of education and be employed. Consequently, efforts are now being made to turn the tide on the decline.
3. When the time comes to sign the legal documents, make sure the steps taken by the client and witnesses are in line with best practices.
- Estate planning attorneys have always understood that, while the law requires certain formalities for the execution of wills and other legal documents, the most careful among us also make use of the “best practices” that have developed over time. In the case of clients who are blind or visually impaired, consider going the extra step of adding particular language to the signature and attestation clauses of the document to evidence that both the requirements and certain best practices were observed.
- One best practice, supported by Massachusetts case law, involves reading the contents of the will or other legal document to the client – in front of the witnesses – before he or she signs it. We recommend that a clause then be added to the document indicating that the instrument was read to the client.
- A person who is neither the notary nor one of the witnesses should be the one to read the instrument to the client and sign the attestation. Remember to invite one additional person to your standard “signing party.”
- Here is an example of an attestation clause for a client who is blind:
On this __ day of May, 2016, at Boston, Massachusetts, the foregoing instrument was read in its entirety to the above-named testator, [testator name], by the undersigned (the “Reader”). During said reading, the undersigned [witness name] and [witness name] stood beside the Reader and observed said reading to be complete and accurate. We, the undersigned witnesses, each do hereby declare in the presence of the above-named testator that immediately after said reading, said testator signed and executed this instrument as his last will and testament in the presence of each of us, that he signed it willingly, that each of us hereby signs this instrument in the presence of the testator and that to the best of our knowledge said testator is eighteen years of age or over, of sound mind and under no constraint or undue influence.
I read the foregoing instrument in its entirety to the above-named testator, [testator name].
- If you have sent an electronic version of the document to the client in advance so the client could make use of his or her technology to read it, consider also adding language to the signature clause and/or the attestation clause to the effect that ‘the client stated to the witnesses that the client received, in advance of the signing of the document, an electronic version of the document, which the client was able to have electronically read to him or her.’ This is certainly not a requirement, but would make it crystal clear that the client was familiar with the contents of the document prior to it being read out loud during the execution ceremony.
While a client’s visual impairment can create challenges for an estate planning attorney, it also can open up an opportunity for both attorney and client to learn from each other. If we, as attorneys, can take steps to improve our understanding, overcome our discomfort and grow our confidence when assisting clients who are blind or visually impaired, we will forge a greater connection with these clients and become more perceptive, more effective advisors overall.