This year marks the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). No one should be surprised when someone who is deaf or hard of hearing wants to be part of a sports team or a performing arts program, or to attend a neighborhood meeting.
The latest research from Johns Hopkins University estimates that 20 percent of the population has a hearing loss significant enough that it impedes the ability to understand speech without an accommodation. An estimated 1 percent use American Sign Language as their first language and are part of the deaf community — that’s more than 50,000 people in Minnesota. It’s time for the private and nonprofit sectors to understand that deaf, deafblind and hard-of-hearing people not only have the right to engage in the activities sponsored by local communities, but to assume that they want to participate by including the cost of that participation in their budget planning.
A federal lawsuit filed this month by a Fridley family — the Nathansons, who are deaf — against the Spring Lake Park Panther Youth Football Association is an example of the lack of access to civic life that so many deaf, deafblind and hard-of-hearing kids and adults experience. The organization is run by volunteers. It has a budget — and budget assumptions that cover the cost of renting the field, jerseys, helmets and other fees; two of those volunteers were the Nathanson parents themselves. The association knew that the two Nathanson children and their parents were deaf, and for two years it included the cost of interpreters in its budget.
This year, the association stopped providing interpreters, though it had a $4,000 surplus. It told the Nathansons that they had to pay for the full cost of interpreters. The Nathansons didn’t want to make waves; their boys love the game, and their teammates and the parents love their community. But the Nathansons couldn’t afford the cost; the association wouldn’t back down, and the family filed a suit.
The Nathansons aren’t the only ones missing out by the association’s refusal to provide interpreters. The entire team is. Derrick Coleman, a member of the Seattle Seahawks, describes his experience playing football as a child who has been deaf since age 3: “They told me it couldn’t be done.” “Kids were afraid to play with me.” “I was picked on.” “Coaches didn’t know — told me I should just quit.” “I didn’t listen. “
Twenty-five years after the ADA was passed, the Nathansons are being told that they should pay for the full cost of interpreters or, as Coleman was told, “just quit.” We are glad that they are taking this stand, that they “didn’t listen,” and we hope that the association reconsiders. We also hope that including the cost of accommodations becomes a line item in every organization’s budget.
Mary Hartnett is executive director of the Commission of Deaf, DeafBlind, and Hard of Hearing Minnesotans.