Missed Interpretation

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

Alexander is set to graduate in May.

Siddiqi and other plaintiffs say they, too, have had problems getting interpreters for activities outside the classroom.

In her freshman year, Siddiqi remembers, she participated in Cal's Model United Nations Club. "I had to tell the president [of the club] to tell the Student Activities Office to tell the Disabled Students Program to get interpreters for me, and when that did not work, the Disabled Students Program referred them [the club] to other [outside] agencies," she says. Following up on such a referral forces a student club to pay for the interpreter.

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.

"Whenever it went past the time scheduled for interpreters," Siddiqi says, "the president would get all worried and make the interpreters leave [because of the overtime cost]. It was too awkward to ask for interpreters for other clubs after that. I just let it go and attended myself and relied on friends to make notes."

Blair, the UC lawyer, dismisses the complaints as little more than procedural whining. Though the sponsor of the activity, he says, is responsible for making sure that the activity is accessible to students with disabilities, the university provides services to the best of its abilities, sometimes on short notice.

And that short notice, he argues, is the real problem.

"If it's a university-related extracurricular activity, the university always provides accommodation," Blair says. "I am very disappointed in the plaintiffs' counsel for pursuing this where it says that you can give no notice and expect to have services provided."

"Students are students," he continues. "We have a situation where students know they need service, and they wait until the last minute and decide to do something."


Kirstin Wolfe began to lose her hearing while she was a teenager, owing to a nerve disease. She became profoundly deaf during her senior year at Yale University. Although accepted to Harvard Law School, she chose to attend Berkeley's Boalt, across the country from her family and friends, because of its promise for accommodating disabled students.

But there were problems from the first day.

Wolfe says that long before she arrived in California, she informed the university's Disabled Students Program that she would need Communication Access Real-Time Translation to understand lecture classes, the same accommodation requested by Siddiqi and Alexander.

Wolfe recalls that her classes began without captioning services. Instead, she says, Disabled Students assigned her sign language interpreters. There was a problem: Wolfe became deaf late in her life and is not fluent in American Sign Language. She can understand a form of signed English, but not ASL. In the classroom, her preference is real-time captioning; she had even provided the Disabled Students Program with a list of competent, available captionists in the Bay Area.

Wolfe also suffered from a problem that had plagued Emily Alexander: The university's interpreters often did not understand legal vocabulary well enough to effectively interpret lectures. For instance, they might confuse "proximate cause" (something that sets in motion events that result in an unfortunate end, such as an injury), with "probable cause" (a reasonable ground to believe in the existence of certain circumstances). Similarly, they might confuse all-but-unrelated concepts such as "common law" and "constitutional law."

Both law students say they had problems getting interpreting services for examinations, so that they could understand instructions and ask questions. Wolfe hired a lawyer, who eventually helped her get effective interpreting and tutoring to make up the time and examinations she'd missed. But even after the interpreting situation was seemingly ironed out, there were problems.

The Disabled Students office, Wolfe says, refused to give transcripts from the captioned classroom sessions to her and other students using the captioning service. UC Davis also refused to give deaf students such transcripts, saying it was inefficient. Cal has argued that transcripts would provide the deaf students with an unfair advantage over hearing students.

Hearing students are generally allowed to tape-record lectures and listen to them as often as they like. But it was not until Wolfe filed a lawsuit against the university that she was allowed transcripts.

Despite the aggravation, Wolfe stayed at Boalt until she graduated in 1999, going on to work for a law firm in San Francisco. "I came very close to dropping out," she says. "I didn't know what to do. I figured after I fought so hard for the first six months and got them to agree to some things, I didn't want to start over somewhere else.

"I had given up my entire life to move out to California for accommodations. I like the Bay Area, and there were other people there fighting with me."


Stanford University, UCLA, and the California State universities seem to have no problem with providing lecture transcripts to deaf and hard-of-hearing students. The complaint that deaf students would somehow have an advantage over their hearing, tape-recording peers if they were given a transcript of a lecture that everyone attended seems hard to defend as reasonable -- and easy to eliminate. For the price of photocopies, transcripts could be made available to all students in a class.

"My whole thing about transcripts is that if an individual wants to go back and look through a transcript, more power to them," says Gene Chelberg, disability programs and resource center director at San Francisco State University. "I don't see it giving more of an advantage or disadvantage. If they find it helpful, that's fine."

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