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‘It’s not fair’: Deaf wrestler sues for interpreter

Tom Greenwood, and Francis X. Donnelly
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Royal Oak — Deafness hasn’t stopped Ellis Kempf from wrestling.

But not being allowed to use his sign-language interpreter might.

Kempf, a wrestler for Royal Oak High School, filed a federal lawsuit against a Michigan athletic association for not allowing him to use the interpreter during wrestling matches.

In the lawsuit, filed Thursday at U.S. District Court in Detroit, Kempf said he needs the interpreter to relay instructions from his coach.

“I feel very frustrated,” he told a reporter Thursday. “It’s not fair.”

The suit charges that the Michigan High School Athletic Association’s failure to allow the American Sign Language interpreter is a violation of Kempf’s civil rights and the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Kempf, 18, who wrestles in the 152-pound weight class, has been deaf since 2 after contracting meningitis.

At 5, he underwent a successful cochlear implant that partially restored his hearing. For safety reasons, the implants are removed during sporting events, leaving Kempf completely deaf.

According to the Nyman Turkish law firm, Kempf has previously used an ASL interpreter provided by the school district at ringside for nonsanctioned matches.

But, according to the suit, in 2014 a MHSAA referee disallowed the use of an interpreter at ringside, saying Kempf could only use his interpreter positioned in an area “well off the mat.”

According to Kempf, he can’t see her because she’s too far away.

“I don’t have eyes in the back of my head,” he said.

When Kempf’s family appealed, they were told a ringside interpreter might interfere with or block the vision of opposing coaches.

“We aren’t seeking money and he doesn’t want an advantage,” said Elizabeth Kempf, the high school senior’s mother. “He just wants to continue using his interpreter so he can understand what his coach wants him to do during matches.”

John Johnson, director of communications for the MHSAA, said Thursday he couldn’t speak to the specifics of the lawsuit but could address the use of interpreters at wrestling matches.

“We have always allowed interpreters to be present in the coaches’ areas,” Johnson said. “In matches and tournaments, they tape off a quarter of the matches for each team ... so the coach can come a few feet into the match.

“You can have two persons in that box and a third person as an interpreter. This has always been allowed in wrestling.”

According to the lawsuit, the lack of a ringside interpreter puts Kempf at a disadvantage because he can’t hear his coach shouting instructions on what offensive and defensive tactics to employ.

He also can’t always tell when matches begin and end.

“He’s let up sometimes not knowing the match isn’t over and lost,” Elizabeth Kempf said. “It’s heartbreaking ... and ridiculous they won’t allow his interpreter out there.”

In the past, MHSAA rulings have caused rifts between the organization, school districts and parents.

In November, a group of parents threatened a lawsuit against the NHSAA over its decision to not allow a cross country team from Northville High School to compete in the Nike Cross Nationals.

Parents felt the decision was even more onerous since the team was the first in state history to qualify for the nationals.

In its rules handbook, the association says it opposes all-star events and national championships because they can lead to excessive travel and school absences, among other reasons. Students who participate in such events can be declared ineligible to participate in interscholastic athletics for up to a year.

“This rule tends to keep students in class and in other sports and activities of the school,” the rulebook states.

Students and their parents are arguing that the seven athletes ran under a club name and not as “Northville High School.”


(313) 222-2023

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