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Cal State violated deaf student's rights, suit claims

Daily News - 1/23/2020

Jan. 23--A deaf former Cal State Los Angeles student has filed a federal civil-rights lawsuit alleging the university failed to provide him needed sign language and communication services, forcing him to drop out of his graduate-level education program -- allegations that university officials deny.

The lawsuit, which was filed last week on behalf of Long Beach-area resident Gamaliel Datugan, alleges that the former student "repeatedly experienced discrimination based on his disability" by university professors and staff during the fall semester of 2018.

"It's about enforcing a student's rights so he can participate like anybody else and receive the same effective level of communication that any other student would," said Christopher H. Knauf, director of litigation at the Los Angeles-based Disability Rights Legal Center, which filed the complaint with the Almazan Finneman law firm against California State University'sBoard of Trustees on behalf of Datugan.

But the California State University system argued this week that Cal State LA "provided reasonable accommodations to Mr. Datugan."

"The California State University is committed to providing a welcoming environment that supports learning for our diverse and inclusive campus community," the statement read. "That includes providing an equitable learning environment for all students with disabilities. Each of the university's 23 campuses makes services available for students who may need additional support to meet their personal and academic goals."

Datugan, who aspires to be a college counselor for students with disabilities, requires an American Sign Language interpreter or a live speech-to-text interpreting service known as CART to follow classroom dialogue, according to the Jan. 15 complaint filed at the Central District of California's federal courthouse in downtown Los Angeles.

In one instance, a professor refused to permit closed captioning of the video recordings of in-class mock counseling sessions, which Datugan needs to understand the video's dialogue, the lawsuit alleges. The professor required students to review and provide written evaluations of these sessions, but Datugan "was unable to complete his written assignments because he could not understand the dialogue in these videos without captioning."Another professor allegedly prevented CART captioners from accessing course material before lectures so they could provide accurate real-time captioning for the complex medical terminology used in that class, according to the complaint. As a result, Datugan "was unable to access the content of these lectures, because the captioning was riddled with inaccuracies and errors."

The lawsuit also contends that Datugan was assigned an "unqualified ASL interpreter" who lacked the skills to "effectively, accurately and clearly interpret the complex subject matter and medical terminology used in the plaintiff's graduate-level coursework," adversely affecting his ability to communicate.

The graduate student was unable to resolve these challenges with the university's Office for Student with Disabilities. As a result, he fell behind in his coursework and his grades suffered, according to the complaint. He was also allegedly prevented from taking a medical leave of absence because he had "not completed a semester in good standing."

The plaintiff, who is seeking more than $25,000 in total damages, alleges in the suit that he suffered "humiliation, hardship, anxiety" along with irreparable harm to his standing at the university.

Datugan said he was "still devastated" by Cal State LA's failure to allow him to complete his chosen degree program, one that he said would have helped him help other students with disabilities.

"It was just wrong and it feels good to enforce my legal rights," said Datugan, who serves as co-chair of the Deaf-Hard of Hearing Interest Group of the California Association for Postsecondary and Education Disability, in a statement.

Datugan filed a government claim with the Board of Trustees last May. That claim was rejected in July, paving the way for the filing of the lawsuit.The board, which was in the process of being served, has up to 30 days to respond after the date of service, Knauf said. A similar lawsuit has also been filed with the state.

"Our goal is to make sure this doesn't happen to other students and that Cal State LA review its procedures so that they have effective interpreters and captioners for students who are deaf or are hard of hearing," Knauf said.

Another Cal State University campus, Cal State Northridge, is home to the National Center on Deafness, which provides communication access, leadership and scholarship opportunities and direct communication classes for about 150 deaf and hard-of-hearing students each year, according to the center's website.

Students are also able to receive access services such as interpreting, speech-to-text transcription, note taking, tutoring and academic advisement.

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