Deaf Students Do Just Fine Without Interpreters

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……….according to The Supreme Court in 1982.  Amy Rowley’s parents hired a deaf lawyer to argue their case in front of the US Supreme Court. There are quite a few “firsts” in this landmark case setting the foundation for the system we see today.



By DENA KLEIMAN, Special to the New York Times

Published: March 24, 1982

WASHINGTON, March 23— In a stirring plea on behalf of a 10-year old deaf girl from northern Westchester County, a 35-year-old graduate of Brooklyn Law School today became the first deaf lawyer to argue before the United States Supreme Court.

With the help of a computerized video display screen, the lawyer, Michael A. Chatoff, who can speak but not hear, communicated with the nine Justices during oral arguments by reading their questions and then speaking back to them.

”This is a tough world, and it is going to be as tough for Amy as it is for every other child,” said Mr. Chatoff in halting, dissonant speech, as the Justices leaned forward in their seats to be able to hear. ”If she’s going to be able to compete she must receive an education equal to those of other children.”

First Time for Such Equipment

It was the first time the Court had permitted the use of special electronic equipment in the courtroom. It did so specifically for this case, in which it must decide whether a Westchester school district may be required by law to provide a sign-language interpreter for Amy Rowley, a deaf fourth-grade student from Cortlandt, N.Y., who is in the top half of her class.

It was also the Court’s first opportunity to define what Congress meant in the Education For All Handicapped Children Act of 1975, which says that all handicapped children are entitled to a ”free appropriate public education.”

Raymond G. Kuntz of Bedford Village, N.Y., who represented the Westchester school district, argued that the District Court’s ruling in favor of Amy’s interpreter had established a costly precedent that could result in an explosion of similar cases.

He challenged the jurisdiction of Federal courts in determining the ”appropriate” educational program of a handicapped child, contending that it was a matter for state education officials. He argued that so far as Amy was concerned, the school district had already exceeded its obligations under law by providing her with a wireless FM hearing aid, a speech therapist and other special attentions, including the installation of a special Teletype machine that allowed the school to communicate with Amy’s parents -both of whom are deaf – without relying on the telephone.

”I don’t know how you distinguish Amy’s case from all other cases,” said Mr. Kuntz. This case Could Have Broad Impact

The case could have broad impact on school districts across the nation that now provide special services for 4 million deaf and other handicapped school youngsters. The districts are grappling – in light of dwindling Federal assistance – with whether school districts can afford what is required of them.

The Federal Government now provides about 4 percent of New York State’s $1.4 billion special education budget for the handicapped, according to state education officials.

As Mr. Chatoff began his argument, the courtroom with its Doric marble columns and heavy maroon velvet curtains was silent. The only people standing were Mr. Chatoff and a sign-language interpreter, who was in the rear of the courtroom so that deaf spectators could understand. Mr. Chatoff’s  voice echoed through the chamber until Justice Sandra Day O’Connor asked him a question.

”Will your interpretation of the statute mean that every school board may be required to have an interpreter for every deaf child in the country?” Justice John P. Stevens asked at one point. Again Mr. Chatoff paused to look at the screen.

”Not every deaf child can be educated in a public school,” Mr. Chatoff responded. ”This case involves Amy and only Amy.” The cost of a full-time sign-language interpreter is from $20,000 to $25,000, according to the State Education Department. Amy’s sign language teacher is paid $8,000 a year on a sliding-scale basis for substitute teachers, according to officials of the Hendrick Hudson School District. System Developed at Gallaudet.

Under the specially installed system in the Court, a stenotypist in the courtroom typed the argument into a computer system on a terminal set up in an adjoining corridor. The computer then translated the stenographic shorthand into English and almost instantly displayed the transcript on Mr. Chatoff’s screen. The system was developed by Gallaudet College, a national college for the deaf in Washington.

Mr. Chatoff, who had successfully argued the case in two lower Federal courts with the help of a note-taking assistant, lost his hearing during law school as a result of an illness. He could not use a sign-language interpreter during today’s argument because, like most other adults who lose their hearing after childhood, he has not acquired sufficient skill in sign and lip reading.

One of the questions before the Court was: Does an ”appropriate” education mean one that enables a child to become a ”functioning member of society” as the Hendrick Hudson Central School District in Peekskill, N.Y., argued in opposing Amy’s interpreter?

Or does it mean giving a handicapped child such as Amy what the Federal District Court in New York ruled was ”an opportunity to achieve his full potential”?

Nancy and Clifford Rowley first approached the Hendrick Hudson School District in 1976 before Amy entered kindergarten. When Amy was in the first grade the school district’s committee on the handicapped concluded that she could receive an ”appropriate” education without an interpreter – a finding that was later supported by the state’s Commissioner of Education.

They sued the Hendrick Hudson Central School District and an interpreter was hired at state expense. The school district appealed and the case eventually went to the United States Supreme Court. Board of Education of the Hendrick Hudson Central School District v. Amy Rowley was the Court’s first interpretation of what was then called the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (now the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, “IDEA”). The Court ruled that Amy’s success without an interpreter proved she did not need one to receive “an appropriate education.” According to the law firm Whitted Cleary & Takiff, “The holdings in the Rowley case have become the standard of analysis for every subsequent special education case arising in the Federal and State courts.”

They lost this first round, but Amy Rowley went on to earn a Master’s degree and became a clinical assistant professor and coordinator of the American Sign Language (ASL) Program at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee School of Education.

Just eight years later, the Americans With Disabilities Act became the law in 1990. The persistence of families like the Rowleys has forever changed the landscape of accommodation and opportunity!


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About Evelyn

Evelyn Hunter is a SODA with years of experiential study in Deaf Culture. She attended Gallaudet University to immerse herself in this unique deaf world while working for the University and studying sign language to hone her skills. Evelyn has served in training, relationship sales, and marketing -- always seeking to expand awareness of Deaf Culture and the unique challenges the deaf face on a daily basis. The Sign Language Company has recently established a presence on Facebook, Twitter, Youtube and a website with a blog, as Evelyn coordinates the marketing and outreach efforts for the agency. Her goal is to attract new clients seeking exceptional service, while maintaining optimal relationships with clients who have selected The Sign Language Company for over 20 years.

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