Children with hearing loss need access to classroom information. Ideally, they would be able to hear the teacher speak and follow conversation with their peers in a noisy classroom, but the truth of the matter is, that is not always possible. If the teacher is using an FM system, the child will likely hear her, but will he hear his peers? And what will happen when the classroom is noisy?
Types of Communication Access
There are a number of ways a student may receive communication access. A student may be able to follow school activity using hearing. She may have academic material previewed and reviewed by a teacher of the deaf and hard of hearing before and after class; he may receive notes taken by another student or by an adult after class; he may have a sign language or oral interpreter, or she may have CART (Communication Access Realtime Translation) interpreting services.
When using CART, the CART reporter types the conversation into a computer and the child is able to read the information on a screen in front of him. The reporter may be in the classroom or may be listening remotely. The advantage of CART and other interpreting services is that the student gets the information at the same time as the other students in the classroom, making it easier for him to participate in classroom conversation and ask questions. The problem is that CART can be expensive.
High School Student Sues
There are currently two cases in which students with hearing loss are seeking CART services for accessibility and are suing their schools. One case (K.M. v. Tustin Unified School District) involves a high school student who successfully used hearing and an FM system through early years, but when she was in middle school she found she could not follow classroom discussion and the FM system was not providing enough benefit. The family asked for CART but the school district refused, saying the student was passing her classes, and, according to the school district, this met its requirements under IDEA.
The family brought suit against the school district under IDEA and under ADA and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. The Court was sympathetic, but sided with the school district since K.M. had passing grades. The case is in appeal, with the A.G. Bell Association providing an amicus brief. The ADA and Section 504 require that equal opportunity be provided, which is a stronger requirement than that provided by IDEA.
College Student Sues
Argenyi v. Creighton University is similar to the K.M. case but, in this case, the school is a medical school. Argenyi has been hearing impaired since birth. He received a cochlear implant in college and had CART services there and a cued speech interpreter. When accepted into medical school at Creighton University in Omaha, he requested CART services but was told to sit in the front row and speechread his professors. (It is obvious that the medical school staff does not understand the limits of speechreading.) The school provided him with a notetaker, an FM system, and told him that the lectures were available on podcast. Argenyi felt that the accommodations were ineffective and paid for CART on his own.
The Court sided with the school district since Argenyi was passing his courses. The case was appealed and A.G. Bell again participated with an amicus brief. This time, in a unanimous decision, the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals in Nebraska agreed with the plaintiff and the Department of Justice that CART services were necessary to assure “full and equal enjoyment” of public accommodations, which includes schools. The court stated that the medical school may not defer to its own judgment about what is appropriate.
Equal Opportunity to Participate
With its decision in July 2013, the U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that institutions of higher education must provide accommodations to ensure effective communication for a student who is deaf or hard of hearing unless doing so would result in an undue burden or fundamental alteration. Both cases may set a precedent for advancing access to CART in classrooms. That can only be a good thing.