Jacob and Calena Lingle signed up for parent-child swim classes at the Hastings YMCA last summer and asked for a sign language interpreter. The Hastings couple, both deaf since birth, would be accompanying their daughter to class. Aria, whose first language was American Sign Language (ASL), is not hearing-impaired.
The YMCA, citing the cost, repeatedly said no, even after the couple pointed to state and federal laws requiring their disability be accommodated.
Last week, the Lingles filed a lawsuit in Hennepin County District Court against the YMCA of the Greater Twin Cities, in a case that pits the need for assistance against the expense and difficulty of providing it.
The YMCA said an estimate put the cost at nearly $1,000 to hire an interpreter. After a lawyer intervened, the organization agreed to give the couple written instructions and a second instructor.
State and federal laws require that employers, businesses, schools, government and nonprofit organizations provide reasonable accommodations for people with disabilities.
But what’s “reasonable?”
“That’s the $64,000 question,” said Minnesota Human Rights Commissioner Kevin Lindsey. “Just because it adds additional cost to your program is not always sufficient to say it’s unreasonable.”
Up at the lake
The Lingles say they vacation each summer at a cabin on Cass Lake in northern Minnesota and they want Aria, now 2½, to feel comfortable and safe playing in the water with her cousins. They signed up for the Sea Lion parent-child swim classes at the YMCA but were denied an interpreter.
A few days before the class started on June 20, 2013, Rick Macpherson, of the Minnesota Disability Law Center, sent the Hastings YMCA a letter asking that it reconsider providing an interpreter.
On June 28, 2013, Bob Zenz, director of risk and safety for the Y, replied: “I conducted a search for interpreters … but have been unable to find a qualified interpreter whom the YMCA may use at no additional cost.”
Zenz said an interpreter would have cost $945 during the seven lessons. The Y receives many requests each year for personal care assistants, one-on-one assistants and interpreters, he said.
“As a nonprofit with limited funds earmarked and spread among multiple programs, the cost of providing all these services would impose an undue financial hardship for our organization,” his letter said.
Too costly or a cost of business?
Bob Halagan, a lawyer representing the YMCA, said it’s not practical to provide an interpreter in the pool for the Lingles for each lesson. He also said it was difficult to find enough interpreters and there were “other less expensive options available.”
According to the organization’s 2013 financial statement, the YMCA had unrestricted operating revenues of $119.7 million last year, and operating expenses of $118.9 million. Those numbers do not include $8.6 million in investment income and other revenue.
Macpherson said finding interpreters is the cost of doing business and should be spread across the organization.
In an interview at the Disability Law Center in Minneapolis, Jacob Lingle said he “learned nothing” at the Sea Lion classes. “I didn’t understand what was going on. I felt like I was the slowest one there. I found that very embarrassing.” The written instructions hindered rather than helped, he said, and the second instructor was there only for the first class.
Halagan said the Y followed up with the Lingles during the class to make sure they had no issues or questions.
He added: “This is an infant swim class so there’s not a whole lot of complicated information to be communicated.”
The day after the lawsuit was filed, the Lingles said, they received an e-mail from the Y offering to provide an interpreter for the Seahorse parent-child swim classes this summer. But only for the first class, which was Wednesday.
“I felt like I was in a completely different world with the interpreter present,” Lingle wrote in an e-mail after the class. “I could see what the other parents were asking. I could stay focused on my daughter. … I could keep up with the pace of the class rather than being behind.”
Lingle said he put in a request to reserve an interpreter for next week’s lesson.
“Our biggest goal for this suit is to have them change their policy and to have them provide interpreters all over the world for Y’s that need it,” Lingle said. “Because I know all kinds of deaf people who would become members if they had interpreters.”