Hebrew Language Interpreting/Technology Challenges For Deaf Student In Public School
By Sharon Ann Dror
We filled out the application to take a course outside BUSD, and I received approval from Burbank Unified School District (BUSD) for Joshua to take Hebrew as an elective to meet the foreign language pre-requisite for college. This was a first for Burbank; it was approved by the school district’s Assistant Superintendent.
So what was next? Joshua is deaf and requires a sign language interpreter.
I requested an interpreter for Joshua, but BUSD informed me that the district would not be responsible for providing or securing an interpreter. "The district is not obligated to provide an interpreter for a student taking a foreign language outside of BUSD when the district does provide foreign languages that are assessable (sic)." TRIPOD has always emphasized to us as parents that TRIPOD's premiere philosophical bases that there are no limits for deaf students in fulfilling their dreams.
I requested an Individualized Educational Program (IEP) meeting, despite the fact that I had already told the IEP team that I have the district's approval. During the July 25th IEP meeting, it was agreed that the Burbank Unified School District would provide interpreter services for Joshua’s two years of Hebrew classes at LAHHS.
People asked me – why not just hire a private tutor; that would make life so much easier. Yes, it would have – but I wanted Joshua to have social opportunities to interact with other Jewish students and build a network of connections in the Jewish community and have peers to observe Shabbat and holidays with. At the same time, he will learn Hebrew while earning high school credits.
Sign Language-And Hebrew...
Fast track eight months since January when we started looking at Jewish High Schools. Not only was it a challenge to get approval for Hebrew classes, it has been doubly challenging finding a Jewish interpreter who knows Hebrew and sign language and is available for the evening classes.
BUSD said, "At this time, there is pretty much no known person who is fluent in both ASL and Hebrew who is available to provide services other than Nina Treiman, who has agreed to interpret the Sunday classes." I would not accept this because I, as the President of the Jewish Deaf Community Center that I founded 13 years ago, have plenty of resources, both locally and nationally.
Bridging Accessibility via Technology
I personally contacted more than fifty local Jewish interpreters, and I did not stop there. I looked into typing services and real time captioning. The obstacle of Hebrew fonts surfaced in regard to captioning, so I investigated Video Remote Interpreting (VRI), which has become a hot commodity among in the Deaf Community who have video phones and web cameras.
Thanks to today's technology, it has been possible to find Jewish interpreters nationwide who know both Hebrew and ASL and to hook them up into Joshua's classrooms. Burbank Unified School District had previously not experienced VRI, so this is another first for them. I even purchased the specialized VRI equipment designed for a group/meeting/classroom environment.
LAHHS has two Hebrew classes, Modern and Ancient Breisheet Text. I did not differentiate between the two; Hebrew is Hebrew-with the modern language naturally growing out of the older language. Much to my consternation, however, the School District raised the question shortly before classes were to begin: Should the district be obligated to pay for coursework that was "religious" in nature?
Fine Line Between Education And Religion?
Three days before classes were to begin, I had correspondence from BUSD informing me that "It appears that our IEP amendment to provide services and an interpreter to Josh at the LA Hebrew High School was based on incomplete information, so the offer of the interpreter for Josh's class in Hebrew is revoked at this time." Any modification to the IEP agreement must be made with the consent of all parties involved, including the parents.
The District expressed concerns that using public funds to enable Joshua to study Ancient Hebrew and Judaic related subjects might violate the establishment clause of the First Amendment. Apparently their attorney determined that: "This appeared to be an inappropriate use of public funds to support religious instruction and may relate to a First Amendment violation to use public funds to support religious instruction. The course description that was provided describes a course that is Jewish Religious Instruction, clearly."
But it was also clear that they did not understand that a Modern Hebrew class is not religious in nature, as was evident from the LAHHS class curriculum description. The Modern Hebrew class is strictly the study of the Hebrew language. To earn the course credit for BUSD, one must take the full time curriculum at LAHHS. Taking Modern Hebrew only would render the whole idea meaningless as there will be no earned credit. I responded to BUSD that I hoped that they will share this important point with BUSD's attorney, particularly since the United States Supreme Court's ruling in the Zobrest case governs this exact situation. In Zobrest v. Catalina Foothills School District, the United States Supreme Court clarified that the IDEA creates a neutral government program dispensing aid not to schools but to individual students with disabilities. Providing an interpreter would not aid the LAHHS, but would ensure that Joshua was receiving the same educational benefit as non-disabled students who take classes at the LAHHS.
Personal Involvement To Make Sure Things Fall into Place
The reason Joshua has interpreters now is due to my own diligent efforts to secure appropriate services. This required extraordinary amounts of time, with no monetary compensation, to help the District find interpreters. I provided them with the names of freelance interpreters who would be available to interpret for Joshua's classes. Classes were to begin in three days, and the District had no interpreters slated to work. I personally secured the interpreters so that Joshua would have equal access from the get-go; I was not going to let him miss important information that is always given out in the first few classes. I also secured interpreting services for the Sunday classes and the November Shabbat on weekend retreat while BUSD and I had to iron out the unresolved issues.
The District did not want different freelance interpreters; rather, they sought to secure one interpreter for the whole semester. Finding a local interpreter for an entire semester was simply not possible.
BUSD requested for an IEP meeting on September 27th. At this third IEP meeting in a four-month span, because of the whirlwinds of email dialogues covering three important issues that needed to be clarified in person. First, they needed to recognize the significance of the curriculum at LAHHS. Secondly, the IEP team did not understand the way in which Video Relay Interpreting (VRI) works. Thirdly, to discuss the freelance interpreter concerns. The result of this IEP meeting was an agreement to cover all interpreting aspects.
I also identified specialized Hebrew interpreters who agreed to commit their services for the VRI. I also researched the kind of equipment needed for VRI and have worked with LAHHS on the Internet access situation for the classrooms at Valley Beth Shalom Synagogue in Encino during the week classes. The Sunday classes are held at Pierce College, which currently does not have internet access in the classrooms. We started the use of VRI in interpreting Hebrew in the classroom on October 31st, which was an historic event. Valley Beth Shalom andLAHHS even went so far as to coordinate with the teachers to have them move from classroom to classroom to enable Joshua to stay in the same classroom with the VRI equipment.
Dealing with the VRI companies is another story. I found Jewish interpreters in San Diego, New York, and Maryland who were available for Joshua's classes. I faced another obstacle: they all work for different relay companies. This necessitated finding a way to use different relay companies, and the only solution appeared to be that we would have to hire one VRI company for one class once a week and the other one for the second class the same week for a six week pilot experiment. After the six-week trial period, there will be an IEP meeting to determine if we will use one VRI company to have the same interpreter for both Monday and Wednesday evening classes for next semester.
VRI interpreters Lore Rosenthal of Maryland and Dano Kaufmann of San Diego have had the honors of being part of this history.
Since October 31st, some equipment and internet bandwidth access fine-tuning were needed as the sessions proceeded.
Ups And Downs With A Bottom Line
I would never want any parents to experience the obstacles that I did in securing services for my son. We live in 2005, but we are still dealing with obstacles and lack of knowledge. A deaf child should not have to suffer because they ask for equal access to attend classes that allow them to succeed and prepare them for their future collegiate careers.
I personally want to thank Howard Rosenblum, Marc Charmatz, and Lawrence Rudden for their assistance, Lore Rosenthal with her Jewish Interpreter referral listing, and Principal Bill Cohen and LAHHS staff for opening the door that will allow Joshua to experience, at the age of 14, his Jewish Community and take Hebrew classes, and for having an open mind regarding alternative options such as VRI, that would allow equal access. Thanks also goes to Andrew Pelter who handled the technical aspects at Valley Beth Shalom.
Most important, this would not have been made possible without all the unbelievable support I got from Kenneth Rothschild, Barbara Boyd and David Rosenbaum through this ordeal. Thank you... And thanks to my three children for bearing with me during my battles up with the school district's administration.
And thanks to all the interpreters, Nina Treiman, Trisha Zagha, Rachel Braver, Richard Fendrich, and Dena Zelig, as well as the two VRI companies, Network Interpreting Services and Sign Language Associates and everyone else who was there for Joshua and for my family.
As a result of this journey, I plan to set up a Jewish interpreter training workshop with three primary objectives: conversational Hebrew crash course, Israeli Sign Language, and tefillah prayers. To be added to the mailing list for Jewish interpreters or to be informed of the workshop training, please contact Sharon Ann Dror at JDCCNews@aol.com
I feel rewarded being able to say that Joshua is a student at Los Angeles Hebrew High School, and I have made a niche to reflect that deaf students can learn Hebrew or any other language they so desire, just as any hearing student can!
And most importantly, many thanks goes to BUSD for working through this with me.
Miracles do happen. Happy Chanukah!