tampabay.com

School Board settles suit with deaf woman

She said she was denied a sign language interpreter for a motorcycle safety course.

By CARRIE WEIMAR and MICHAEL A. MOHAMMED
Published February 22, 2007


TAMPA - Merrie Paul fell in love with motorcycles at age 12 when her parents bought her a Yamaha.

She put her passion on hold for most of her adult years, until she married a man with a penchant for Harley-Davidsons.

But when Paul, who is deaf, tried to sign up for a motorcycle safety course in April 2005, the Hillsborough County school district wouldn't provide her with a sign language interpreter.

Paul sued, accusing the School Board of violating the Americans with Disabilities Act.

"I know some deaf people avoid conflict," she said in sign language. "I don't accept that."

On Wednesday, Paul won her battle. The School Board agreed to pay her $7,500 for emotional distress and provide an interpreter for her and anyone else who requests one in its adult education classes.

Attorney Thomas Gonzalez, who represented the board, said they had planned to settle the suit for some time.

"The whole issue was whether or not we could provide an interpreter service at a cost that was reasonable," he said. "The school board never wants to get into litigation with one of its students."

The motorcycle class was important to Paul, a Brandon resident, because that way she could get a driver's license allowing her to ride a motorcycle.

She was ready to pay the $175 fee for the Armwood High School class but first wanted to make sure a sign language interpreter would be available.

Paul said she was told the district doesn't provide interpreters for recreational classes and she would have to hire her own.

She said she called and e-mailed several school officials to complain but was ignored.

When Paul discovered the interpreter would cost her $2,340 in addition to the $175 class fee, she hired a lawyer and took the school board to court.

"It is discriminatory and unfair to force a person who is deaf to pay $2,515 for a class that persons who are not deaf pay only $175," the suit said.

Under the settlement terms, the board will designate a liaison between its adult education program and the district's Americans with Disabilities Act coordinator.

Schools spokeswoman Linda Cobbe said the situation with Paul was a misunderstanding and sign language interpreters have been provided to adult education students in the past.

"We make accommodations for all kinds of disabilities," she said.

Paul said she's thrilled with the settlement. She bought a white Harley-Davidson motorcycle about six years ago but can't ride it outside her subdivision until she gets her license.

She hoped to complete the course in time for Bike Week in Daytona Beach. Instead, she'll take the course starting March 27, in time for a motorcycle rally in Leesburg.

Paul said she can't wait to ride, just like she did as a child.

"I love the feeling," she said. "That's who I am."

Carrie Weimar can be reached at 813 226-3416 or cweimar@sptimes.com.