Missed Interpretation

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

At present, San Francisco State has 17 deaf students, all of whom prefer to use interpreters, and another nine hard-of-hearing students using assisted-listening devices -- microphones worn by professors that send sound to headsets worn by students. The university has not had a request for captioning in the past few semesters, says Gary Aghabalian, head of deaf services at SFSU, but has in the past provided that service.

Lee McCarthy has captioned for students at eight colleges and universities around the Bay Area for nearly nine years. She worked at Cal for three years, during which time she says she knocked heads with Randy Jordan, the head of deaf services, over transcripts.

"There is no reason for it [refusing transcripts]," McCarthy argues. "As a captionist, I feel very strongly that all of my students should get transcripts. I've had many discussions with Randy about that because he didn't want the students to have them.

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.

"Some students he didn't give a hard time to at all. He'd say that they have an additional learning disability. I've worked at eight schools. Nobody has a problem with giving out transcripts like Berkeley."

New words, technical terms, and proper names come across as gibberish the first time they're captioned, McCarthy says, which is part of what captionists clean up before they produce a transcript of what they've taken down. "That's one of the reasons that I feel that you do need transcripts. It's like proper names. You need to go in and edit, so that the student knows exactly what was said."

Blair, UC's lawyer, says that both UC Berkeley and UC Davis now give students transcripts in response to a request. But, he insists, the campuses are not required by law to provide transcripts. "The complicating factor here is that these services cost money," explains Blair. "It costs about $50 an hour for the captionist to clean up the [transcripts]. The intellectual debate is whether providing students with a clean transcript is going above equal access and giving them an unfair advantage.

"The hearing students take notes, they don't get a transcript. That's the debate. I don't think it hinges on the law. It hinges on basic reasonable differences in terms of what deaf students ought to be provided."


In January, deaf students filed a state lawsuit that mirrors their federal case against the universities. State and federal disability laws are slightly different; state statutes are generally considered more favorable to plaintiffs.

If anything, the move shows how far the two sides are from settlement.

Certainly, the student plaintiffs have included some nitpicking over administrative rules, including an argument that amounts to the legal right to be late to class, in their demands. But even though the universities' positions on many of the suit's main contentions are all but indefensible -- particularly in regard to CART and transcripts -- University of California officials seem determined to go to trial. They seem insulted at being named in a lawsuit that deals with the needs of disabled students, especially students at Berkeley, the birthplace of college services for the disabled. "We have very fine sign language interpreters who are on our staff. We have very fine real-time captionists on our staff," UC's Blair sniffs. "The services can be and will be improved over time because they always are. Some students are always happy. Some students are never happy. Most are in between.

"I'm confident that the students are getting all of the services that they need."

In a broad sense, the lawsuit long ago ceased to be about services, and need, and even education. Now, the arguments center on who is right, in a technical, legal sense. And it's a very expensive sense. UC's refusal to provide for a small population of deaf and hard-of-hearing students on two campuses may wind up costing more in legal fees than the cost of giving the students what they asked for in the first place. And that money is being expended to lessen the risk that the birthplace of service to disabled college students might provide more of those services than is strictly required by the law.

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