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July 5, 2004

Deaf mom says district violated disabled act

From: Los Angeles Daily News, CA - Jul 5, 2004

Agencies told that requests for captionist weren't met

By Karen Maeshiro
Staff Writer

ACTON -- A deaf mother of two children in the Acton-Agua Dulce Unified School District has filed complaints with state and federal agencies saying the district is violating the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Parent Trish Knechtli said the district has repeatedly failed to provide her with a "real-time captionist," who, with a computer and a special machine, can display on a screen every word that is spoken. Knechtli said she requested the service for a school board meeting, her daughter's eighth-grade graduation ceremony and a meeting regarding her children.

"I don't want to fight with the school, but I also don't want the school to tell me that I don't have rights as a person or parent or a deaf person," Knechtli said. "I do. There are laws out there that say I have rights."

District officials said they believe they are complying with the federal law and make every effort to accommodate disabled individuals.

"We are certainly willing to accommodate her needs but we also want to use student moneys wisely. If we have the tools to provide what she needs, that's what we are doing," said Linda Wagner, who took over as superintendent of the financially troubled district on July 1 after serving as chief administrative officer.

Officials with the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights said the agency is investigating the allegations but refused to comment further.

"That case is open and under investigation," spokesman Rodger Murphey said.

Knechtli said she filed a written request for a real-time captionist more than two days before a board meeting in June, along with the name and telephone number of an agency that provides the service.

However, the district provided sign language interpreters, and Knechtli said she is not fluent in sign language.

"They assumed because I'm deaf that I know sign language. Isn't that discrimination, to assume that all deaf people speak the same language? Would it be fair to say all hearing people speak the same language?" Knechtli said. "The ADA says it must be an effective mode of communication for the individual."

Wagner said the district was unaware that Knechtli didn't know sign language until the night of the meeting.

Knechtli said the district also failed to provide a real-time captionist and reserved seating for the hearing-impaired at her daughter's graduation ceremony at High Desert Junior High School.

Wagner said reserved seating was available, but Knechtli said her husband inquired about the seating and was told by school officials that they didn't know anything about it.

Although Wagner said it is difficult to provide real-time captioning for an outdoor event, she conceded, "In hindsight, it would have been appropriate to provide it."

Knechtli's son and daughter are special education students, and at a meeting to discuss their individual education plans, the district furnished a typist to record the conversation -- with a computer screen visible to Knechtli -- rather than a real-time captionist.

"After inquiring with our attorneys and different people who work with people with disabilities, it was determined that this would be a reasonable way to accommodate her needs," Wagner said. "We found it meets the letter of the law to provide a typist."

Knechtli contends the typist did not record everything that was being said and used shorthand and abbreviations that Knechtli didn't understand. When she asked their meaning, she said, she was ignored.

Knechtli disagreed with Wagner's contention that real-time captionists are difficult to find and costly. Wagner said one found by the district quoted a price of $248 an hour.

For now, Knechtli said she plans to hire her own real-time captionist for her children's special education meetings, at a cost of about $50 an hour. The captionist helped Knechtli at California State University, Long Beach, where Knechtli obtained a master's degree in social work.

Karen Maeshiro, (661) 257-5744

Copyright 2004 Los Angeles Daily News