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Deaf wrestler gets access to sign language interpreter at state matches

Dec 14, 2015

Royal Oak High School senior Ellis Kempf, captain of the Ravens wrestling team
Credit Kempf

Eighteen-year-old Ellis Kempf is captain of his wrestling team, the Royal Oak Ravens.

He wrestles in the 152-pound weight class.

Kempf is also completely deaf without his cochlear implants, which he can't wear during matches. 

Most of the time, it's not an issue. Kempf has a sign language interpreter who signs his coach's instructions during matches.

But during state matches sanctioned by the Michigan High School Athletic Association (MHSAA), Kempf's  interpreter was prohibited from moving around the wrestling circle to maintain eye contact with him.

"Not only could he not hear instructions from his coaches," says Kempf's attorney Jason Turkish, "he didn't even have a way to have the whistle translated. He wouldn't know when a match actually started and stopped."

Ellis Kempf, captain of the Royal Oak Ravens wrestling team
Credit Kempf

Turkish says Kempf and his family negotiated unsuccessfully with the MHSAA for a year to change the group's rule, before they filed a federal lawsuit.

Turkish says his firm took the case on pro bono (without payment), because it's a rare opportunity to take a case where one side is absolutely right and the other side is absolutely wrong.

"They were discriminating against an 18-year old high school senior who's deaf," says Turkish. "It's really sad."

But MHSAA spokesman John Johnson says the intent was not to discriminate, but to keep people safe. 

He says during wrestling, "bodies do go flying around," and having the interpreter moving around the mat could put people – including the interpreter – in harm's way.

The MHSAA will re-write its rules to settle the lawsuit. Interpreters for deaf wrestlers will be allowed to move 360 degrees on the outer circle of the mat during a match, provided they don't interfere with wrestlers, coaches, referees or scoring officials.

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.