Disability, Education — December 4, 2015 at 6:21 am

Deaf high school wrestler’s parents forced to sue Michigan High School Athletic Association (MHSAA) for equal access for their son


Ellis Kempf is an 18-year-old high school student at Royal Oak High School. He’s a three-letter varsity sports player, and is captain of the Royal Oak High School wrestling team. He’s also deaf. WDIV-TV’s Mara MacDonald reported last night that Kempf and his parents are suing the Michigan High School Athletic Association because they refused to allow him to have a sign language interpreter to interpret commands/calls from his coach during matches.

According to MacDonald’s report, Kempf does have cochlear implants, but does not wear them during matches – presumably concerned that the inherent roughness in a wrestling match may damage the expensive devices. Kempf’s mother approached MHSAA and asked on his behalf for him to be allowed to have a sign language interpreter present during matches. MSHAA said no, claiming it would give Kempf an “unfair advantage” and “block his opponent’s view.”

Nonsense. Pure, unmitigated nonsense for two reasons:

  1. Kempf is clearly already at a massive disadvantage going into the match. His opponent has the luxury of being able to rely on all of his senses, while Kempf doesn’t. Even if he were allowed to have an interpreter, he’d still have to struggle to maintain a position where he could see the interpreter, not to mention the inherent lag in the time it takes for messages to go from coach to interpreter to Ellis Kempf’s mind. Frankly, the fact that he can concentrate on wrestling at all is downright impressive.
  2. MHSAA is a member of the National Federation of High School Athletic Associations, and states on its website that the majority of its rules and regulations come directly from NFHSAA. The NFHSAA has a lengthy white paper on its website discussing the evolving responsibility for high schools and athletics governing bodies to provide reasonable accommodation for disabled students. NFHSAA cite both the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act of 2004 (commonly known as IDEA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 as examples of federal statutes that compel schools and athletics governing bodies to allow reasonable accommodation for disabled students, not as a matter of a “free and appropriate public education,” but as simply a matter of nondiscrimination.

There is no argument that Ellis Kempf could be a detriment to his team’s success, as there might be if a student with a mobility impairment wanted to participate in their school’s track team. He’s captain of the Royal Oak HS wrestling team and clearly a talented wrestler. Moreover, participation in athletics can be a great tool to teach lessons about teamwork, the value of hard work, and goal setting, and to deny a student these opportunities simply because of made-up reasons about “unfair advantages” is wholly unfair and unjust. In her interview with Mara MacDonald, Kempf’s mother states that she thought she could simply clear the matter up with a simple phone call to MHSAA. Clearly any reasonable adult would see that allowing her son to have a sign language interpreter was a simple accommodation and not a big deal.

Evidently that’s not the case.