CC image courtesy of Flickr, Burt Heymans.
By R.L. Stollar, HA Community Coordinator
What should have been one of the happiest moments of their lives turned into a nightmare for a young homeschooled girl and her Deaf parents.
The girl, a homeschooled student from New Jersey, was graduating in a ceremony held on June 6 at Fellowship Bible Church in the city of Sewell. The ceremony was organized by Gloucester County Christian Home Schoolers Association (GCCHSA), a non-profit Christian home school support group serving families in Southern New Jersey.
According to the girl’s mother, Melissa Morgan, the Morgan family arranged for an interpreter to be at the ceremony so that Melissa and her husband Robert, who are both Deaf, could enjoy their daughter’s big day. The Morgan family was willing to make all the arrangements. They found an interpreter and had the interpreter meet with Andy Moore, the person in charge of the graduation planning. Andy referred them to his wife, Liz, and she and everyone else involved figured out where Melissa and Robert could sit for best visibility and where the interpreter should stand. The plan was for the interpreter to stand next to the presenter so that the interpreter would be visible to all who needed to see. According to the Morgan family, Liz agreed with and accepted these plans.
Later, according to Melissa, one parent from GCCHSA complained that it would be “distracting for an interpreter to stand next to the speaker and asked if an interpreter can sit on the floor away from the stage and at the bottom of the steps.” Melissa says that she “explained to her that I wouldn’t be able to see my daughter, the speaker, and the entire stage,” and adds that, “She doesn’t really understand my Deafness well.” Melissa states that the complaining parent kept interrupting her attempts to work things out with Andy Moore, the GCCHSA chair Ardra Jarvis, and the interpreter.
Eventually, Melissa and Robert were allegedly forced into a compromise: the interpreter would have to sit, not stand, on the stage, and would have to sit behind the speaker. In an email to Melissa from Andy Moore (obtained by Homeschoolers Anonymous), Moore tells her that, “It will be fine for your interpreter to sit in a chair at floor level in front of you for the remainder of the program.” Without any other options, Robert and Melissa had to accept. However, as Melissa pointed out to me, she would “not be able to view the speaker’s body language, tone, etc. And after we hand out the diplomas to the 8th graders, an interpreter will move her chair off the stage to the end of the steps on the floor in front of me and my family for the rest of the ceremony.” This meant that Robert and Melissa were unable to view the entire stage because they had to be “focused on the interpreter alone sitting on a chair on the floor for most of the time.” This meant they missed “most of the celebration.”
The day prior to the graduation, Melissa issued a public plea on her husband’s Facebook page for friends and family to petition GCCHSA to change their minds. “The more people sent [sic] to that email address and hopefully these people will open their minds and heart,” Melissa wrote. “I’m hoping that God will shed HIS light on those people to change their mind and hearts and be open.” Melissa and Robert were ultimately unsuccessful in these attempts. They were also unable to file a claim for disability discrimination under the American Disabilities Act because GCCHSA is a religious non-profit organization in New Jersey and thus exempt. Furthermore, while the graduation planner Andy Moore sent an email apology to the Morgans’ daughter for the stress the organization caused her, neither the daughter nor Robert nor Melissa received any apology from Ardra Jarvis, the chair of GCCHSA who bore ultimate responsibility. And as Melissa points out, even “after their apologizes, they didn’t change anything… It was 100% unacceptable, but we all stayed for the entire ceremony for the sake of our daughter.”
Even though what should have been a stress-free, wonderful graduation ceremony for her daughter ended up being a nightmare, Melissa is renewed in her eagerness to prevent this from happening to someone else’s child in the future. “I believe that all non-profit organizations should follow the ADA laws,” Melissa states. “What about people with disabilities, such as a person in a wheelchair who don’t have any accessibility?”
“I want to prevent this happening to anyone in the future.”