LINCOLN, Neb. (KOLN) – Nebraska ACLU and National Association of the Deaf are looking into the case of Paul Ruff, a deaf wrestler who lost the Nebraska State Wrestling Championship in 2021 after a referee failed failed to meet his communication needs.
The Nebraska ACLU and NAD issued a notice to the Nebraska School Activities Association on Monday, calling on the NSAA to take specific action. Civil rights organizations said the NSAA had unlawfully discriminated against by denying Ruff reasonable modifications and a fair chance to compete for the championship.
The case dates back to February 2021. Ruff made his way into the game for first place when the NSAA assigned a referee wearing an opaque mask to the game. Although the NSAA and the referee knew Ruff was deaf and relied on the lip-reading, the referee kept his mask on, used verbal warnings throughout the match, and issued a warning to Ruff when those warnings failed. have not been heard. Because he couldn’t hear the warnings, Ruff couldn’t make any corrections and lost the game 0-1.
The letter of formal notice says the NSAA violated the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act by failing to provide reasonable changes and doubling down on its dismissal of concerns and inaccurate claims that Ruff understood the arbitrator.
Ruff, a native of Gering, has since graduated and now trains for the Deaflympics at Legends of Gold Wrestling in Beresford, South Dakota. He said that as he walks forward he wants to make sure the other students don’t encounter obstacles.
“I want other deaf or hard of hearing student athletes, indeed all student athletes with disabilities, to have an equal opportunity to compete in the sport they love without discrimination,” said Ruff. “We are simply asking for a level playing field. “
The letter of formal notice urges the NSAA to issue a public apology, revise NSAA regulations, require annual training, discipline the arbitrator, and provide reasonable damages to Paul and his family.
ACLU Nebraska Acting Legal Director Rose Godinez said the requests reflect the NSAA violated the law and then made matters worse with an indifferent response.
“Paul’s disregard for disability and his inability to shoulder his responsibilities is downright unacceptable,” Godinez said. “Paul was entitled to effective communication with the referee and to fair competition. Instead, he got the deliberate indifference of the NSAA and forever missed a fair chance at winning a state title. It is high time the NSAA took ownership and straightened out.
Brittany Shrader, senior counsel at NAD, said Ruff’s situation is similar to other disability discrimination cases that the organization has successfully litigated.
“Sports governing bodies like the NSAA have an obligation to make reasonable changes so that student-athletes like Paul can participate,” said Shrader. “We are proud to represent this young man because the rights of people who are deaf or hard of hearing are essential in all aspects of our lives, including school sports. The goal is to make sure that no other student-athlete is discriminated against like Paul did. “
Since the game, Paul and his family have worked with the Nebraska Commission on the Deaf and Hard of Hearing to encourage the NSAA to take action that would help support deaf and hard of hearing student athletes. At the request of the commission, the NSAA conducted cultural competency training in August. NCDHH said shortly after the training, the adjudicator in Paul’s case contacted the commission to say he had done nothing wrong.
The letter of formal notice requires a response by mid-January.
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