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 wants to apply to medical school. First, she's taking science classes at UCLA to raise her grades -- she had a respectable B average at Berkeley, but the competition for acceptance to quality medical schools is fierce -- and to show prospective schools that she can do well academically, if given the accommodations she needs. UCLA is the fourth college and third UC campus she's attended. She says the only problems she's had with her disability arose at Berkeley.

Siddiqi functions well with interpreters; they helped her get through high school. Once she hit Cal, however, she found that most sign language interpreters did not know enough of the terminology used in her advanced science classes to provide useful translation.

So she asked the university to provide Communication Access Real-Time Translation, or CART, for her complicated lecture classes. In the CART system, a stenographer records what's being said, much as a court reporter might; the stenography machine is hooked to a laptop computer, and a deaf client then follows along by reading words as they scroll across the screen, in the fashion of a closed-captioned television program.

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.

Advances in technology and, particularly, software brought real-time captioning into the classroom in a big way during the early 1990s. Since then, and as bugs have been worked out, more deaf and hard-of-hearing students have begun to request captioning as an alternative to the more traditional use of interpreters.

Captioning works particularly well for hard-of-hearing students and for those who lose their hearing after learning to speak; these students frequently have not learned American Sign Language and, therefore, do not use interpreters well. In fact, the Americans with Disabilities Act, the federal law that ensures people with disabilities have equal access to public facilities, specifically recognizes CART as an effective communication method in classrooms, among other settings.

At UC Berkeley, as at most colleges and universities, the specifics of disability accommodations are decided on a case-by-case basis, in consultation with a disabled student, with the university retaining the final say. In her case, Siddiqi says, Randy Jordan, deaf services coordinator at Cal, refused her request for captioning. Then, she says, Jordan assigned her a captionist for classes such as physics and math, where she could use interpreters, but not in biology and biochemistry, where she says she actually needed a captionist's help.

It wasn't until her junior year, after the lawsuit was filed, Siddiqi says, that she began getting captioning services.

Jordan did not return phone calls for this story, but Siddiqi certainly is not the only disabled student at odds with him; in fact, most of the Cal students in the lawsuit point to Jordan, the gatekeeper of deaf services, as the epicenter of deaf problems at UC Berkeley. Many of those complaints center on what students have seen as a problem in getting anything other than traditional sign language interpreting services in the classroom. (Even interpreters have squared off against the deaf services office -- over a "no socializing" policy, aimed at discouraging romantic attachments between interpreters and their clients. The policy was so strict that it made interpreters afraid to have casual lunches or chats with deaf students, many of whom have trouble communicating with others on campus. The university now defers to the socializing guidelines of national professional interpreters' associations; the union that represents the interpreters still considers the situation unresolved.)

Blair, UC's lawyer in the disability lawsuit, resolutely defends Jordan and the Disabled Students Program.

"We have professionals on both campuses in student disabled service programs who are trained and evaluate the students," says Blair. "There is a deaf coordinator on both campuses. At Berkeley, the coordinator's first language is ASL -- both his parents are deaf. The head of disabled students is profoundly deaf. There's a lot of experience and knowledge.

"They sit down with the student and ask them what they want. In most cases the student says, "I want an interpreter or real-time captionist.' In rare cases they can get both."

In Siddiqi's case, getting both required a court order.

In April 1999, records show, UC's lawyers fought bitterly against Siddiqi's request that the university provide her with captioning and an interpreter for a review session to prepare for the final exam in an advanced biology class. Siddiqi argued that she needed captioning to grasp the complex vocabulary of the session, and an interpreter so she could ask questions. UC argued that she could have real-time captioning, or she could have an interpreter and a note taker, but providing both an interpreter and a captionist was excessive.

U.S. District Court Judge Susan Illston sent the lawyers off to work out an agreement, which, in the end, provided Siddiqi with both a captionist and an interpreter when they were needed.

Emily Alexander was diagnosed with a hearing problem when she was 6 years old. By the time she was 16, Alexander was deaf. Following the advice of doctors, Alexander's parents enrolled her in private school so she might benefit from smaller classes. Throughout high school, she made up for what she couldn't hear with extra reading and study; she graduated a National Merit Scholarship finalist.

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