Missed Interpretation

Deaf students wonder why officials at UC Berkeley and UC Davis won't hear their plea for equal access to education

Shazia Siddiqi's grandmother was the first to notice that her 3-year-old granddaughter wasn't speaking much. Doctors confirmed what her family feared: Shazia is profoundly deaf.

With the aid of sign language interpreters, Siddiqi attended public school with her peers, first in Texas and then in Southern California. In the eighth grade, Siddiqi won the school's spelling bee. She was class valedictorian in both her middle and high schools. Siddiqi took advanced math classes at Riverside Community College when she was in the ninth grade, and by the time she was a senior in high school, she was also taking calculus and general chemistry at the University of California at Riverside.

It was no surprise when, in 1997, Shazia Siddiqi entered UC Berkeley on a Regent's Scholarship based on academic achievement. Siddiqi chose Cal not only because of its academic reputation, but also because of the promise of disability services.

Emily Alexander says she was not provided interpreters when she needed them.
Brandon Fernandez
Emily Alexander says she was not provided interpreters when she needed them.
Emily Alexander returned to Boalt Hall in January 2000. She is set to graduate in May.
Brandon Fernandez
Emily Alexander returned to Boalt Hall in January 2000. She is set to graduate in May.

Cal's service to disabled students dates to the early 1960s, when Ed Roberts, a polio victim who was wheelchair-bound and relied on a respirator, persuaded university officials to allow him to attend school and live in what was then the university's hospital. Others followed and what would eventually become the Disabled Students Union was formed in 1969. The following year, Cal received a federal grant for the first Disabled Students Program in the country. Ed Roberts went on to head the California Department of Rehabilitation.

Given that history, Shazia Siddiqi had every reason to think that she would do well at Cal. Indeed, the academics were everything she'd hoped -- she graduated in December with a Bachelor of Science in molecular and cellular biology. But the promise of first-rate accommodations for her disability proved empty. Instead of receiving practical help, she ran into a kind of academic nomenklatura whose apparatchiks seem to excel in making the routine difficult, and the special nearly impossible.

Siddiqi is one of the original plaintiffs in a 1999 class-action lawsuit brought by deaf and hard-of-hearing students against UC Berkeley and UC Davis; the suit alleges that the universities failed to provide appropriate accommodations for the students' disabilities and denied them, in violation of federal law, the same university access that non-disabled students have. Three years and nine volumes of court filings later, the case appears to be heading to a federal courtroom.

Specifically, the deaf and hard-of-hearing students claim that they were assigned sign language interpreters who did not have enough familiarity with academic subjects to effectively translate them, were not allowed transcripts of classroom lectures (even though students who could hear were allowed to tape-record the talks), and were not provided other services needed for the students to take advantage of the educational opportunities offered at the two UC campuses.

In the eyes of some of the students, at least, Cal's reputation concerning disabled issues adds insult to injury. Home to the first Disabled Students Program in the country, UC Berkeley is widely perceived to be one of the country's leaders in providing services to disabled students. It was for this reason, of course, that many of the students who are now plaintiffs in the lawsuit chose to attend school there in the first place. Although most of them have graduated, they left school frustrated and disappointed.

Meanwhile, the lawsuit lingers senselessly on. And on, and on, and on. As the case heads to trial, about the only thing the two sides agree upon is that it should have been settled years ago. Somewhere along the way, the lawyers on both sides became seriously, passionately, vehemently mad as hell; they fight like legal gladiators over everything from significant academic policy to niggling administrative matters, all of which is now being refereed by a federal court judge. Neither side seems willing to compromise, and each blames the other for prolonging the process.

"They've tried to stonewall us in discovery. They've tried to turn one deaf student against another by claiming in the press that they're doing this for money," says Guy Wallace, a San Francisco lawyer who, along with the Legal Aid Society of San Francisco's Employment Law Center, is representing the deaf students. "What they haven't done is sat down and discussed settlement with us."

UC lawyer Jeff Blair, who is working with his colleagues in the University of California's legal department and an outside law firm in defending the suit, has accused Wallace and his team of trying to drum up legal fees. "They want over a million [dollars] in fees for something that should never have been a case in the first place," says Blair. "We're going to try this case because we're not doing anything wrong. The citizens of the state of California would be proud of the kinds of services we provide."

So far, the state's proud citizens have paid for three years of defending policies that apply to only a handful of students (there are about five deaf students on campus at Cal at any given time) and that, in some cases, don't seem to make common sense, much less comply with disability law. But the pride of California citizens is not really at issue in this lawsuit; rather, the suit has not been settled largely because it challenges the pride of the University of California.

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