Nyman Turkish PC, a national litigation and disability law firm, filed suit today in federal court against the Michigan High School Athletic Association on behalf of Ellis Kempf, a deaf wrestler for Royal Oak High School.
At issue is the MHSAA's refusal to allow an American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter mat-side to relay coaching instructions and strategies during MHSAA-sanctioned matches. Last season during non-sanctioned matches, Ellis, 18, used an ASL interpreter provided by the school district. The lawsuit seeks an emergency injunction against the MHSAA to prevent it from barring the interpreter this season.
Ellis, 18, is captain of the Royal Oak Ravens and wrestles in the 152-pound weight class. He has been deaf since the age of 2 due to meningitis. Cochlear implants allow him some hearing but he can't wear the external components during matches, rendering him completely deaf.
"We aren't seeking money and he doesn't want an advantage," says his mother Elizabeth Kempf. "He just wants to continue using his interpreter so he can understand what his coach wants him to do during matches - that's all."
Without his interpreter, Ellis is at a competitive disadvantage because he can't hear his coach shouting instructions on what offensive and defensive strategies to employ - a key element of high school wrestling - nor can he tell when matches begin and end.
"He's let up sometimes not knowing the match isn't over and lost," says his mother. "It's heart-breaking to him and to us that they won't allow her (Autumn, his interpreter) out there. It's ridiculous they won't allow that. He's such a great kid."
According to the lawsuit, an MHSAA referee disallowed the interpreter during a match last season. The family appealed and was told an interpreter might interfere with or block the vision of opposing coaches.
Jason Turkish, managing partner of Nyman Turkish, a Southfield law firm specializing in disability cases, said the firm is taking the case pro bono.
"Ellis just wants a fair fight – literally and figuratively," Turkish said. "A student-athlete shouldn't win or lose a match because he's deaf – he should win or lose based solely on ability. In our estimation, the priorities of the MHSAA are incredibly misplaced and create a danger for him, which is why we're seeking injunctive relief in federal court."