(AP) St. Cloud, Minn. A group of deaf teenagers are suing five driving schools in central Minnesota, claiming the schools violated federal and state human rights laws by refusing to provide sign language interpreters.Driving schools are private businesses that need to make money if they are to stay in business. In order to pay for an interpreter, they would need to get nine extra students just to break even on the cost for teaching just one deaf student. To say that it is an unreasonable burden to place on that business is an understatement.
The teenagers' families, some of whom have spent thousands of dollars to hire their own interpreters, say they are seeking justice for all deaf kids.
"I hope we win the case," said Heather Breitbach, a deaf 16-year-old. "But I also hope a new law gets established so all future deaf kids can take driver's ed with an interpreter and not have to fight in court about it."
For Breitbach, of Melrose, it took a year and cost her family several thousand dollars for an American Sign Language interpreter.
Breitbach and four other deaf teenagers filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Minneapolis last week. It seeks a minimum of nearly $300,000 in punitive and compensatory damages.
School owners say they want to do the right thing, but the cost is high -- as much as 10 times the cost of the course. Since the suit was filed at least two schools have said they will begin paying for interpreters.
The teens' attorneys claim state and federal laws make such accommodations mandatory.
"Since many public schools no longer offer driver's education, convincing private driver's education schools to provide interpreters has become a recurrent issue," said Bruce Hodek, director of the Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing Services Division of the Minnesota Department of Human Services.
The U.S. Department of Justice settled a similar case against a Wisconsin driving school in 1999. In that case, Wold Driving School of Wausau was found in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act and ordered to reimburse a deaf student for interpreter costs.
Midwestern driving schools usually charge between $250 and $300 for 30 hours of classroom time and six hours of behind-the-wheel training. It would cost about $3,000 to get an interpreter for that many hours.
Having an interpreter may be a necessity for a deaf person to access driver's education, but an interpreter may also be a necessity in order for deaf people to access banks, grocery stores, and so on. Should each private business be required to hire a full time interpreter?
To put it another way, an oxygen tank may be required for some people with emphysema to function in a driving school classroom. Should the driving school be encumbered to pay for the oxygen tank during classtimes? Just how far does this go?
Having a handicap is certainly a barrier to many people. Perhaps it would be good business if handicaps were accomodated for. But should a private business be forced to do so, especially when it entails such a prohibitive cost to the point where it would cause the business to lose money as a result?
(Filed under miscellany)