Deaf wrestler, MHSAA agree to wider use of interpreters

Tom Greenwood
The Detroit News

Royal Oak — A deaf high school wrestler has won the right to use a sign-language interpreter more extensively during his matches.

According to the Nyman Turkish law firm in Southfield, which represented Ellis Kempf, “the MHSAA rewrote its rules about interpreters for deaf or hard of hearing wrestlers, allowing them full 360 access around the mat at all matches, provided they don’t interfere with wrestlers, coaches, referees or scoring officials.”

Kempf, 18, who wrestles in the 152-pound weight class for the Royal Oak Ravens, had filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Detroit two weeks ago against the Michigan High School Athletic Association, arguing he needed the interpreter to relay instructions from his coach.

Association spokesman John Johnson said Monday both sides moved quickly to resolve the issue.

“We think that this gives the young man the opportunity to be communicated with during the course of the action, but still make things on the mat to be as safe as they can be for all parties,” Johnson said.

He added that although the specifics of the agreement weren’t readily available to him, he believed the agreement went into effect Wednesday in time to cover a scheduled match.

Johnson addressed the use of interpreters at wrestling matches when the suit was first filed.

“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 settlement, “in larger venues, interpreters will be required to stay six feet from the wrestling circle. In smaller venues, they will be allowed closer after discussing the matter with the referee assigned to the match.”

Kempf has been deaf since age 2 after contracting meningitis. At age 5, Kempf 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 his lawsuit, the lack of a ringside interpreter put 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,” his mother, Elizabeth Kempf, said previously. “It’s heartbreaking.”

Kempf’s lawsuit said that 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.”

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

The suit had charged that the 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.

“We commend the Michigan High School Athletic Association for doing the right thing to protect the safety of hearing impaired wrestlers and also to level the playing field for them,” Jason Turkish, managing partner of Nyman Turkish law firm, said Monday.

According to the law firm, Kempf had previously used an sign language interpreter provided by the school district at ringside for unsanctioned matches.

“Athletes with disabilities don’t want advantages, they simply want to compete equally,” Turkish said. “This case ends as it began, with Ellis simply looking for a fair fight.”