by NICK BUCHANAN
Tiffin resident Beth Walliser spent March 20 on the corner of Miami and Sandusky streets with a poster board in hand. Its headlining message was blunt: “Shame on TU.”
“I’m here in regards to the lack of response from TU in regards to the deaf issues that the four students on campus are trying to present to the [disability] services director,” she said. “Without discussion or any forthcoming, the director is trying to force the students to discontinue their live interpreters that they have now and making them go to iPads via Skype.”
Walliser said that her daughter, first-year Tiffin University student Winema Traxler, received a live interpreter – her preferred communication aid – through disability services without struggle last semester but was told this semester that she would lose her live interpreter during classes and instead receive an electronic voice interpreter. Traxler and three other hearing-impaired students have expressed their concern over plans to integrate video remote interpreting services, which they feel are inappropriate in a classroom setting. However, their messages to Marcelle Jones, the director of disability services, were met with nonresponses and threats of service discontinuation if they didn’t attend training sessions for the iPads that they didn’t want.
“They were told, ‘If you don’t come out to the meeting, we will suspend your services,’” she said. “To threaten to take away services they depend on, that’s disgusting. That’s just immoral.”
As a private university, Tiffin University is required to comply with Title III of the American with Disabilities Act. While Title II of the act mandates state and federal government entities to abide by the primary accommodation requests of a disabled person, Title III organizations are merely encouraged – not required – to do so. However, private business still must provide a form of effective communication aid for speech, hearing, or vision-impaired individuals.
Marcelle Jones did not respond to any requests for comment, but Dr. Sharon Perry-Fantini, the assistant vice president for equity, access, and opportunity, refuted any claims that disabled students would lose accommodations altogether.
“As long as the student has a documented disability, the university must find reasonable accommodations – reasonable for the students and for the university,” Perry-Fantini said.
She did not comment on the definition of a reasonable accommodation or any plans to integrate Skype translation services into the classroom, as she she did not know how the technologies work or would be used in the classroom. While she also could not discuss whether live interpreters are available to every deaf student who requested one because of case-by-case treatment of disabilities, she noted that a live interpreter is being added to the Tiffin University staff to accompany students to extracurricular events and act as a substitute for outsourced classroom interpreters as needed.
Walliser, though, was under the impression that live interpreters would be provided only for activities outside of class and replaced with Skype-equipped iPads in class.
“They’re still willing to provide live interpreters for extracurricular activities – sports, band, banquets, dinners, that kind of setting – because the iPad certainly isn’t going to work in that setting,” said Walliser. “But [iPads] are not ideal for optimal use in a classroom setting. When you’re in a group setting with 20 or 30 people, they’re inefficient. Why should our students be subjected to that? They should have a fair and appropriate education like everybody else.”
The mother of two other deaf children and a self-proclaimed advocate for the deaf, Walliser told her story to any passerby willing to listen, and as a sign of strength in numbers, she asked them to attend a scheduled meeting with disability services, which was later canceled. As word spread on campus and online, the disability services office e-mailed a press release to students that said the protest was “a result of a misunderstanding that has been resolved.”
However, one week after Walliser’s first protest and the university e-mail that claimed her issue had been resolved, she was back on the street.
In the days after her first protest, she said that the deaf students began experiencing what she called retaliation from the university. Her daughter and her daughters’ deaf friends were pulled from classes and on-campus jobs to partake in fruitless meetings with administrators, resulting in a loss of class time and wages.
“They work for the cafeteria, and they are losing wages,” Walliser said. “The three deaf girls are roommates – they have to worry about paying rent. I’ve had them come crying to me because of two straight weeks in a row of cut paychecks.”
According to Walliser, a lawyer for the university also told the four students that they were not to talk about their grievances due to a new internal investigation to search for any violations of university policies, which Perry-Fantini confirmed is confidential and is being conducted by two certified civil rights investigators.
“All persons present at any time during the resolution process are expected to maintain the privacy of the proceedings in accord with university policy,” Perry-Fantini said. “While the contents of the investigation meeting are private, the parties have discretion to share their own experiences if they so choose, and should discuss doing so with their advisors or advocates.”
Perry-Fantini was unable to discuss any specifics of the situation at hand, citing a need for protection of both the administration and the students in the private proceedings. Moreover, Tiffin University employees are unable to disclose specific educational or medical information to third parties – including parents – without the consent of students under guidelines of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act and the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act.
Tiffany Turner, one of the affected deaf students who originally offered “to share what really went down with those who would like to hear it” on Facebook, was of few words after the investigation’s opening.
“What I can say is that nothing has been resolved, nor [were] any of us happy,” Turner said. “This was not a misunderstanding.”
Walliser claimed that the students, three of whom she knows on a personal level, fear expulsion or suspension of services if they break their gag order and that one affected student has distanced himself from the situation. Because of these fears, she decided to take to the streets as a voice on behalf of the students, claiming that she is “not afraid of TU.”
“It’s a damn shame. I was born and raised in Tiffin. I love this town. I love our colleges. Did I want to take it to this level? No,” Walliser said. “Due to their inability to communicate with students, it brought us to it.”
Before the investigation was opened, Turner also noted discrepancies in communication from members of university faculty and staff, including Jones and Perry-Fantini.
“We’re confused as to who’s lying and who’s telling the truth, so we really don’t know whether we have interpreters or not,” said Turner. “[Perry-Fantini] said she had no idea that this was going on. Sharon [Perry-Fantini] was telling us that [live interpreter service] was just for outside class, but with all of the e-mails that Marcelle [Jones] has sent us, [Jones] is basically saying, ‘No more interpreters. This is what we’re doing.’”
Despite student complaints and a press release that blamed the situation on misunderstanding, Perry-Fantini declined to comment on any alleged communication issues.
“We have to determine there is a communication problem,” she said. “That’s part of the investigation. It’s confidential.”
Amendment one: The Tystenac originally reported this story under the headline, “Protest sparks investigation of university.” This has been corrected to reflect that the investigation is internal and is being completed by the university.
Amendment two: Dr. Sharon Perry-Fantini was originally reported to have refused comment to both The Tystenac and Beth Walliser due solely to protect the privacy of parties involved in the investigation. Additionally, Perry-Fantini is legally bound to keep specific educational and health records confidential under FERPA and HIPAA guidelines, which the article has been changed to specify.