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Deaf education program at USU on its way back after 2006 lawsuit

December 17th, 2012 Posted in Opinion

By Brandon Fonda

LOGAN – Jonathan Helgesen, a 28-year-old grad student, is the last of 12 former students who sued Utah State University for inadequate services for deaf students back in May of 2006. At the time USU – which used to have the highest number of deaf students in the state – was not providing enough certified American Sign Language interpreters to adequately see to the needs of their students.

“I would go to class and they would have a student who was in the ASL II class to interpret for me, not a certified interpreter who knew what they were doing,” Helgesen said. “Sometimes I would show up for classes and they wouldn’t even have an interpreter or a note taker.”

Helgesen told the school that they were not following the Americans with Disabilities Act, which states “no person shall be excluded from participation in or be denied the benefits of the services, programs or activities of a public entity.” The students would later win the lawsuit, forcing the school to hire at least four interpreters for deaf students.

But it was too late. Offended by the lack of resources provided by the university, coupled with Sorenson Communications — a business service that enables deaf callers to conduct video calls through qualified ASL interpreters — moving from Logan to Salt Lake City, many of the deaf students transferred to other schools. Utah Valley University in Orem now has the majority of deaf students in Utah at 66, according to the UVU Accessibility Service.

“There is just a lack of qualified interpreters and deaf-friendly jobs in Cache Valley,” said Curt Radford, a lecturer at USU. “Most of the deaf community worked for Sorenson Communications.”

Radford is aware of only eight or nine deaf students who are currently attending USU. And although there is a deaf education program at USU that prepares students for teaching careers in schools for the deaf, most deaf students choose to go to UVU, where there is a prominent community of deaf students.

“We have a great deaf education program here,” Radford said. “UVU only has a deaf studies program, its like a general studies degree, you can’t really go into anything specific with that, but there’s a deaf community in Orem so kids choose to go there.”

Helgesen was one of the few who stayed at USU.

“I stayed because after all the deaf kids left, there were plenty of interpreters for me,” said Helgesen, who is almost finished with his graduate degree in deaf education. “I grew up in a hearing world and all of my hearing friends were still here.”

But staying in Logan and being isolated from other deaf communities is harder for others.

“I always wanted to become an interior designer or fashion designer but UVU doesn’t have those programs,” said Brigham City native Amanda Pyle, a junior at UVU studying deaf studies. “I came here for the deaf community.”

“Most of my hearing colleagues in the deaf education program can sign,” Radford said. “I enjoy my association with them but I wish the deaf community was as large as it was 17 years ago.”

But the USU Department of Communicative Disorders and Deaf Education is working to fix the problem.

“Since the suing of the university by the deaf students, USU has hired some of the most highly qualified and certified interpreters available,” said Freeman King, USU professor and division chairman of deaf education. “But the damage that was done is very difficult to repair. We are hoping that in the future, more deaf students will be enrolling at Utah State and we will become truly a deaf-friendly campus.”

Along with qualified interpreters, the department is trying to get scholarships for students applying for the deaf education graduate program.

“We are constantly seeking grant funding for both our deaf and hearing graduate students,” King said. “However, for the deaf student, Vocational Rehabilitation has been amenable to assisting in both undergraduate and graduate work.”

It is unknown how much money the department will provide or is seeking for scholarships at this time but they continue to try and amend what was done.

Aside from all the drama, Helgesen has never regretted staying. “It’s a great program,” he said. “I still have lots of friends here.”


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