State Bar of Michigan
Volume 3, Issue 2, March 2007

Committee on Justice Initiatives and Equal Access Initiative Disabilities Project

Disabilities Project Newsletter

Determining Proper Accommodations for
Deaf Law Students

by David Cohen and Richard Bernstein,
Bernstein Law Firm

Most attorneys remember the anxiety of being a law student. Imagine how much greater the feeling of trepidation would be if one sat in his/her law school classes unable to hear the professor or his fellow students. This is the reality for the growing number of law students who are deaf or hearing impaired.

While no official census has been taken to determine the exact number of deaf or hearing impaired students currently enrolled in law school, it appears that there is a trend towards a significant increase in the number of such students attending and succeeding in law school. By one estimate, the current number of deaf or hearing impaired attorneys/law students has increased from approximately 35 in the late nineties to as many as 170, and the numbers may be far greater.

Advances in technology have also increased the available services that can be utilized to help students with hearing loss succeed. As of 2006, over 90 law schools had faced the issue of accommodating a student or students with hearing impairments.

As there appears to be a trend towards increased hearing loss at a younger age, the demand for proper accommodation is likely to increase. Yet, there still is not a uniform system for determining which tools are needed to ensure the success of the deaf student.

Various methods exist to help a student succeed. Some of the more common means of accommodation include the following:

Note Taking

Some schools facilitate the taking of notes for deaf or hearing impaired students. This allows the students to view a classmate's notes to fill in the “gaps” missed by the lecture. The difficulty, of course, is that note taking remains a subjective science, and not everyone agrees on what constitutes comprehensive note taking. This means of accommodation also further removes the deaf student from the dynamic of classroom participation.

Sign Language

Perhaps the most traditional form of accommodation is the use of a sign language interpreter. A difficulty with this system is that many hearing-impaired students are not fluent with American Sign Language. As growing numbers of deaf students grow up in non-signing homes and are educated in mainstream schools, it is increasingly common for individuals with significant hearing loss to lack a fluency in signing.

Lip Reading

Certainly the most cost efficient system for accommodation is to have the students lip read the professor. Difficulties with this system include the reality that some of the professor’s comments will likely be lost due to poor articulation and the speaker’s movements during class. Certainly, many of the student comments and the group interaction through the Socratic Method are at risk with this system.

Lip Reading through an interpreter

Some accommodations have been provided through the use of a lip interpreter who mouths/repeats everything said in class in a pronounced manner, aiding the ability to follow the class through lip reading. This person mouths in a whispering fashion what the professor and students say, but in a more exaggerated way. Of course, while some students are excellent lip readers, others lack this skill. In the end, the same difficulties can exist that arise from the use of sign language. Success is very dependant upon the fluency of the student in the method of accommodation provided.

T-Coil

This is a special digital device available on many hearing aids. Often used to tune in to the frequency of telephone calls, it can be adapted to pick up the microphone frequency of a professor. Of course, it creates the obvious problem of failing to pick up the interaction of classmates and class discussions. This is no small concern. The authors of this article had the pleasure of interviewing John Machiorlatti, a law student diagnosed with significant hearing loss. During our interview, he indicated that he recently used a stopwatch to track the amount of time in a class where the professor was talking vs. the amount of time where students were speaking. Not surprisingly, about 55 percent of the class was spent in student discussion.

CART Computer Assisted Real Time Translation

CART seems to be the preference of students such as the aforementioned Mr. Machiorlatti, as it is all-encompassing in its ability to capture whatever is said in class. The system uses a specially equipped stenographer, who transcribes the class in shorthand, generating an instant and complete transcript onto a student’s laptop computer. The inherent problems of fluency with other accommodation systems and the difficulty of dropped portions of classes are solved through the use of this form of transcription. The primary drawback to this system is that it is potentially cost prohibitive as it necessitates the hiring of a properly trained stenographer. An added benefit of the system is the ability to preserve an entire transcript of each lecture. The existence of a transcript could benefit other members of the student body who are absent due to an unforeseen circumstance such as illness.

Choosing the right system can make a significant difference. John Machiorlatti went through great difficulties in establishing the CART system as his form of accommodation. Struggling through his initial classes without proper accommodation, he decided to re-start his first year of law school a year later, to provide the time that his school needed to establish his accommodation. Did the proper accommodation work? Among several impressive accomplishments, Mr. Machiorlatti received a Certificate of Merit for the highest grade distinction in his first year criminal law class. Without proper accommodation, Mr. Machiorlatti believes he could not have succeeded in law school.

Although the Americans With Disabilities Act offers provisions to help assure the success of students with disabilities, there remains a large gap in the success of deaf students and the manner in which they are treated. A part of this trouble arises from the language of ADA which speaks in terms of providing “reasonable accommodations” for students with disabilities. As one deaf student put it to me, “the language [reasonable accommodation] is not specific and is in fact vague to the detriment of some students.” Many well-intentioned institutions are motivated by budget to choose the most economically feasible means of accommodation, and this is not necessarily the best.

Adding to the conundrum of what is reasonable in accommodating deaf students is the variable factor that each student is different, and students with identical disabilities may excel with the very different accommodations discussed above. It seems increasingly evident that it is in everyone’s interest for law schools to reach out to entering students who are deaf, hearing impaired, or otherwise disabled before they begin their classes. Assessing the best means of accommodation on an individual basis maximizes the chances of the student succeeding, and decreases unnecessary anxiety and frustration for the students. It is, of course, the mission of all law schools to see their student body excel, and when schools focus attention on the various means of accommodation, they demonstrate their commitment to the best ideals of the legal profession. This is in the interest of all students and the entire legal community.

References

Deafattorneys.com

Hearinglossweb.com “This is something the baby boomers are finding out as their hearing deteriorates years before their parents’ did.”

The list of common accommodations was compiled through an interview with Mr. John Machiorlatti, an outstanding deaf law student at Thomas M. Cooley Law School. The authors are most indebted for assistance and input.

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