DART Toolkit II: Legal Issues — Deafness Case Example

Nathan is a deaf student in a PhD psychology program. His native and primary language is American Sign Language (ASL). He uses English when writing, but does not use it for speech or speech reading. Through high school, Nathan attended schools with other deaf students, where the primary mode of instruction was sign language. As an undergraduate, he applied and was accepted to a public university that had a good reputation for providing accommodations. He requested and received (a) an interpreter for his classes, (b) printed materials in advance and (c) a note-taker. These accommodations were effective for him, he earned high grades in most of his classes, and faculty wrote strong letters of recommendation for his graduate school applications.

Student signingNathan was accepted into a PhD program near the top of his list. He established a relationship with the student disabilities office prior to his first semester, and was assured that his accommodations (the same three he received as an undergraduate) would be granted. However, on his first day of class, he had no interpreter and struggled to understand any part of the lecture or discussions. After advocating for his rights, an interpreter was provided for subsequent classes, but the quality of her skills was subpar and her technical knowledge of psychological topics was limited. Therefore, the quality of information Nathan received was compromised, and he could not trust that the information from the interpreter was accurate. To compensate, he read through all lecture notes before and after each class and emailed the professor and classmates with questions that he could not find the answers to on his own. The students started to talk about why he was missing or misunderstanding information that, in their perspective, the professor explained clearly. The professor recommended tutoring. Nathan felt like he constantly had to prove his abilities to his classmates and professors and he became stressed with the extra work he had to do just to get the same information his peers were receiving. To make matters worse, the note-taker became ill in the middle of the semester and had to take several weeks off. No replacement was arranged despite Nathan’s requests.

Legal Issues

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires the provision of "auxiliary aids and services" to persons with disabilities. For individuals who are deaf, these aids and services are designed, in part, to ensure “effective communication” and may include qualified interpreters, note takers, written materials and telecommunications devices. Although the ADA does not mandate certified interpreters in all situations, it is a violation of this Act to provide an interpreter who is not qualified (as in Nathan’s case). It was also the university’s legal responsibility to provide a substitute note-taker when Nathan’s usual note-taker became ill.


**This case study was written in collaboration with the ADA Information Center, Boston, MA
**DISCLAIMER: The goal of this webpage is to provide a general overview of major disability federal statutes, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act, and is intended to provide only general, nonspecific legal information. This website and these articles are not legal advice and are not intended as legal advice.