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May 8, 2006

Deaf students sue USU, regents

From: Deseret News, UT - May 8, 2006

By Erin Stewart

Deseret Morning News

Deaf students at Utah State University aren't getting an equal education, according to a class-action lawsuit filed Monday.

The suit, filed by a group of 12 deaf current and former USU students, claims the school provides inadequate services for deaf students, including a shortage of qualified sign-language interpreters and few recourses for deaf students.

The suit filed in U.S. District Court seeks a declaration that the school violated the Americans with Disabilities Act, which states no disabled person shall "be excluded from participation in or be denied the benefits of the services, programs or activities of a public entity."

In particular, the suit claims the school denies deaf students equal access to educational opportunities, denies students effective communication with professors, fails to provide accommodations in a timely manner and uses policies and procedures that are discriminatory or tend to screen out students who are deaf.

Both USU and the Board of Regents are named as defendants in the suit.

"The ADA is a law of equity. It helps balance the playing field," attorney Dale Boam said. "They want to register for a class but are steered away from some classes and to others the university can provide accommodation for. There are many students who are unable to take classes in their major."

Boam said the students have been trying to negotiate with USU officials for years, receiving several letters from administrators acknowledging the shortage of interpreters for deaf students. The students finally opted for legal action, Boam said, after none of the school's promises to fix the situation materialized.

"They have been acutely aware that it's a problem and they've said, 'Boy, we're really sorry about that,' but then done nothing to push it forward," he said. "It has been put on the back burner; it's been nodded and smiled at."

Diane Baum, director of the USU Disability Resource Center, said she has been working to fill the gaps in deaf student resources for years, most recently hiring two full-time interpreters. National searches for certified interpreters are all coming up short with few qualified interpreters on the market, she said.

Baum added she is also trying to buy remote video equipment to allow students to watch an interpreter from out of state on a computer screen while in class.

"It's not clear what more I can do. It is a supply and demand issue. Everyone is looking for interpreters. There's just a national shortage, and the training programs are not keeping up with the demand," Baum said.

Four deaf students are currently registered for fall semester, although that number usually grows by the time classes actually start, Baum said. The school now employs three full-time certified interpreters.

But attorney Boam said the interpreters and note-takers the school does have are not versed enough in academia to be of any real help.

Brandon Dopf, one of the defendants, said the interpreter assigned to his calculus class was only able to tell him when the professor assigned quizzes. In other classes, Dopf was instructed to change his schedule to get an interpreter.

"They could fill the halls with interpreters who have no skills," he said. "They've flooded the campus with unqualified interpreters in the past. It's a matter of finding skilled interpreters to work in a college setting."

© 2006 Deseret News Publishing Company