Deaf doctoral candidate files complaint against UC Berkeley, citing discrimination

Ethan Epstein/File

Related Posts

A deaf visiting student researcher and doctoral candidate filed a complaint Wednesday alleging that UC Berkeley failed to provide the necessary accommodations — namely American Sign Language, or ASL, interpreters — for her to complete her degree.

Nancy Barker is a Canadian resident who was invited by campus professor Wayne Getz to study in his lab in the College of Natural Resources, or CNR. Barker alleged that the campus unlawfully discriminated against her based on her deafness by “refusing to provide the ASL interpreters that she required” to participate in classes and other activities associated with her research on campus, according to the complaint against CNR and the UC Board of Regents.

Getz declined to comment until the case has been resolved.

“The university has not been served with the lawsuit and we are declining comment on that front,” said campus spokesperson Janet Gilmore in an email. “Regarding our services and procedures, the campus provides deaf translation services for visiting student researchers. The university is not only legally obligated to provide them these services, but we do so because it is consistent with our values as a community.”

The complaint claims that UC Berkeley is in violation of Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Established in 1990, the law states that no qualified individual with a disability may be excluded from participation or denied services from a public entity on the basis of that disability.

In December 2015 and several times in January 2016, Barker requested ASL interpreters from the campus Disabled Students’ Program, or DSP, but she was not provided this accommodation. According to the complaint, the campus “failed to implement policies and to train its employees and staff” regarding the communication needs of deaf individuals.

The DSP could not be reached for comment as of press time.

“Without the aid of regularly scheduled interpreters or other accommodations, (Barker) was completely unable to understand or participate in the educational opportunities offered to other visiting student researchers by Berkeley,” the complaint stated. “In this regard, (Barker) received services that were objectively inferior to those provided to students who are hearing.”

After filing her requests for accommodation, Barker was informed by the DSP that the department she was studying under was responsible for funding an interpreter. Getz told Barker that the department “did not have funds to pay for interpreters” and would not be able to provide accomodations for her in Getz’s lab and the classes he taught, according to the complaint.

Andrew Rozynski, lead counsel on the suit, said the campus “claims” departments can request a reimbursement for providing disability services. Rozynski said universities usually have a centralized office that pays for accommodations and that it is unusual for department to handle such requests.

“(Barker) informed (UC Berkeley) that its policy of requiring individual departments to pay to accommodate disabled students encouraged discrimination both by making it more difficult for disabled students like herself to access adequate accommodations and by dis-incentivizing department heads from sponsoring disabled researchers to begin with for financial reasons,” the complaint stated.

Barker’s immigration paperwork had not been completed upon her arrival to campus, and Getz invited her to audit his classes while the papers were being processed. On Aug. 31, 2016, Barker received an email from Keith Gilless, then-dean of CNR, that said attending classes on a tourist visa was “fraudulent” and that she could not attend classes without a completed J1 visa. Getz told Barker to disregard this email and continue attending class, according to the complaint.

Barker explained to Getz that she was “afraid” of being deported, but she could not understand what was going on in his classes without an interpreter. According to the complaint, Getz told Barker, “How can you expect the university to pay so much money for one person?”

Rozynski said the campus “unnecessarily” pushed the cost of providing an interpreter on the department. He also said he believes that the departments have the funds to pay for accommodations, but that the campus is ultimately responsible for providing accommodation services.

“We hope the university changes its practices and doesn’t put the funding burden on the individual departments so this doesn’t happen again,” Rozynski said.

Amanda Bradford is the lead academics and administration reporter. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @amandabrad_uc.