Missed Interpretation

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

College posed a more difficult challenge, but after a brief stint at West Valley Community College in Saratoga, Alexander transferred to Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., which specifically serves deaf and hard-of-hearing students. She graduated magna cum laude with a degree in psychology. She also became fluent in American Sign Language.

Alexander wanted to pursue a career in law, particularly in the area of patients' rights. Golden Gate University offered her an academic scholarship to attend its law school, but she instead chose UC's acclaimed Boalt Hall, where she had also been accepted. Boalt is consistently ranked among the country's top 10 law schools, and Alexander thought that a public university, particularly the University of California, would be eager to accommodate her needs.

She was wrong.

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.

More than 5,000 would-be lawyers apply to become one of the 270 or so students who enter Boalt Hall each year. According to the school, the greatest number of its students from out of state complete their undergraduate degrees at Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Cornell universities. The lion's share of California students come from UC Berkeley, UCLA, and Stanford University. There are 850 students heading toward a Juris Doctorate degree at Boalt Hall. Collectively, they have a 3.74 grade point average, and on average score in the 94th percentile on their entrance examinations. Emily Alexander was the first deaf student to enter the J.D. program. She was not the first to graduate.

Alexander recalls meeting with staff members in Cal's Disabled Students Program before she began school and requesting ASL interpreters for her classes. Staff members mentioned that she also should have someone taking notes for her, but explained that she would have to secure such a person in each class herself. (ASL is a visual language, making it difficult to take notes simultaneously.) The university, Alexander says, was willing to pay students $25 per unit each semester to take notes for her. But she would have to handle the bureaucracy of hiring and scheduling note takers and requisitioning their pay.

Meanwhile, there were problems with interpreters. Alexander relies on interpreters to hear, but not speak, for her. Even so, a lecture class of more than an hour requires two interpreters, because long-term signing causes fatigue that tends to affect a signer's ability to communicate. Nonetheless, Alexander says, only one interpreter was often assigned to her class.

More important than the number was the ability of the interpreters. Often, Alexander says, the university's interpreters were not well enough versed in legal subjects to properly translate the material discussed in her classes. "The interpreters were not familiar with the case names and some of the words," she says. "I would have to come up with a crib sheet and give it to the interpreters. I was putting a lot of time into not only my own classwork, but into [educating the interpreters]."

Attending law school has nearly as much to do with things outside the classroom as inside. Experience at student journals, working in clerkships and internships, and participating in study groups and student organizations is more than encouraged; it is expected. Boalt Hall's own literature puts it this way: "Student programs are a vital part of a Boalt education. Eleven student-edited law journals provide significant educational opportunities in legal research, writing and editing."

Alexander says that the university's Disabled Students Program did not provide her with an interpreter for the orientation and meetings where students learn what is expected of them on a law journal, so she couldn't, and didn't, participate.

Alexander did attempt a training session for work on the law school's Homeless Outreach Project without an interpreter. But during a role-playing exercise, she says, the facilitator called on her, and when she was unable to respond, chastised her for not knowing the material. Embarrassed, Alexander did not return to the project.

Alexander says she requested interpreting services to attend the school's own Academic Support Program, which offers review sessions designed for specific groups of students, including those with disabilities. "When I asked for interpreters, [the program] responded that there were not enough interpreters, or that there were only a certain limited number of interpreters on staff," Alexander stated in a court deposition filed as part of the lawsuit. "I had to wait several weeks until interpreters were available for the ASP session I wanted to attend. ... After requesting interpreters on four or five other occasions, I felt it was futile and never bothered asking again."

Finally, in 1997, a frustrated Alexander gave up on the idea of becoming a lawyer and dropped out of Boalt. "People I entered school with were graduating and getting jobs," she recalls. "I had a year of credits still left. I felt like no matter how hard I worked, I would never catch up to the other people. I was so burnt out. I felt like I didn't belong at that school.

"I dreaded every day."

Alexander took a job working for an advocacy agency in the East Bay. Two years later, she learned about and joined the deaf students' lawsuit against the university. In January 2000, she re-entered Boalt. "I don't want to spend the rest of my life wondering, "What if?'" she says. "Boalt was very receptive to my coming back. Boalt is trying to do the right thing. Disability services is the problem."

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