BERKELEY — Megan Conway, who has a severe hearing disability, remembers crying because of her inability to actively participate in graduate classes at UC Berkeley. An amplification device helped her hear the professors' lectures, but anything else said in the room was lost to her. She felt the university did not provide adequate assistance.
"It put me into tears many times," said Conway, now an assistant professor at the University of Hawaii's Center on Disability Studies. "It's very frustrating because you know it could be better, you know it could be different. It's like being in a glass box. You're watching all these other students participating, and you're an observer."
Conway, then known by her maiden name of Jones, is one of five current and former hearing disabled UC Berkeley and UC Davis students who filed a 1999 class-action lawsuit against the two universities. The students contended that the campuses had violated their rights under the Americans With Disabilities Act by not providing reasonable help to deaf and hearing-impaired students.
Without admitting fault, the universities agreed in a recent court settlement to improve services for hearing-impaired and deaf students, to pay each of the five students in the suit $10,000, and to pay $1.1 million in lawyers' fees.
"I think that the settlement and the services described in the policies are really going to be a model for other universities to follow in the provision of communication services for the deaf and hard-of-hearing community," said Guy Wallace, an attorney for the students.
Under the settlement, the universities will provide additional listening devices for students' use and make sure all videos, films and DVDs used in classes with a deaf or hearing-impaired student have captions. They will also streamline how students get services, such as note taking, sign language interpreting and real time captioning for classes and other activities. About 10 hearing-impaired students are enrolled at the two campuses.
The settlement also deals with safety, increasing the number of public and emergency telephones on campus that deaf and hearing-impaired students will be able to use, and adding signs directing students to them.
An independent panel will evaluate the changes made and determine whether more should be required.
According to UC attorney Jeff Blair, the university was complying with the law before the lawsuit and has made several improvements over the past year unrelated to the suit.
For example, Blair said, UC Berkeley hired a full-time captioner. A captioner's job, like that of a court reporter, is to type the contents of lectures while they are being delivered; with a few seconds delay, students can read the lecture on a computer screen. The campus also added a staff member in the disabled students program to help deaf and hearing-impaired students.
"This is a case where I feel very confident that the university was providing very good accommodations before the suit, during the suit and after the suit," Blair said. "In my view, the settlement makes the policies and procedures more user-friendly."
The case was settled, according to court documents, to avoid extra legal costs.
UC Berkeley senior Lexin Ka, who is hearing-impaired, wasn't a part of the lawsuit, but will be on campus to experience some of the results.
"I hope it will help; the policy needed to be changed," said Ka, who sometimes communicates using sign language.
But there are still problems that the settlement won't fix.
Ka, a cognitive science major from San Francisco, said he sometimes has difficulties with garbled words in real-time captioning. In a psychology class last semester, the term "photoreception" kept coming to him mistakenly as "photoperception." As a result, he said, he got an answer wrong on a test.
Ka said he and other hearing-impaired students worry that such problems will make it harder for them to get into graduate school because their grades won't be high enough.
Part of the problem, according to university attorney Blair, is that the Bay Area has a shortage of captioners. "It's very hard to improve given the shortage we have," he said.