For 10-year-old Amy Rowley, the world has never been an easy place. Deaf since infancy, she has struggled to give herself a “normal” life among hearing people. She plays and giggles like any other soon-to-be fifth grader, and she even stays in the top third of her class of 36 at the Furnace Woods public elementary school in, affluent Peekskill, N.Y. (pop. 18,236). Until two years ago Amy, the only deaf child in the school of 270, was catching only 60 percent of what her teacher and others in the classroom said. Since the school began providing a sign language interpreter at public expense, the child’s comprehension has soared. The $15,000-a-year interpreter was hired on orders from a federal judge, after Amy’s parents brought suit against the Hendrick Hudson School District. “We only want an equal opportunity for our daughter,” Amy’s father, Clifford Rowley, 40, argued. But last month the Supreme Court, in a 6-3 decision, demurred. In the majority opinion, written by Justice William Rehnquist, the Court ruled that under the law states are obliged only to provide an “appropriate” education for their children—and that Amy’s above-average academic performance was proof that she didn’t need the interpreter simply to get by in school.
Peekskill school officials have no animus toward Amy. Indeed, they have provided her since kindergarten with a speech therapist (at a $3,300 cost yearly), a $1,000 electronic listening device for the classroom, and a specially trained teacher for the deaf for one hour every day. But the district—which spends $6,000 per year on an average student compared to about $22,000 in Amy’s case—claimed that it was an unnecessary expense. Now that they have won their battle, school officials pledge they will continue to encourage Amy academically. “She’s a delightful young lady,” says School Superintendent Charles V. Eible, “and, I might add, doing very well in a very competitive area. This community is geared toward the importance of education.”
Clifford and Nancy Rowley are themselves examples of their town’s devotion to educating its children. As soon as they discovered her deafness, at 15 months, they began to teach Amy lip-reading, language skills and speech. Their dedication sprang not just from normal parental love. Clifford and Nancy are both deaf: Clifford, a research chemist, from meningitis in infancy; Nancy, from repeated bouts of German measles when she was 4. The cause of Amy’s hearing loss is unknown, but it is not believed to be hereditary.
The Rowley home is filled with evidence of the family’s determination to compensate for their handicap. The doorbell is wired to set lights flashing throughout the house. They use a teletypewriter which allows deaf people to make and receive phone calls, and a decoding device to pick up captions for certain television programs. The basement is permanently set up as a projection room for the captioned films Nancy credits with speeding up Amy’s reading skills. Nancy is a certified teacher of the deaf who spent every night going over Amy’s lessons with her. She recalls that as the only deaf student at a Rochester, N.Y. private school, she suffered: “I had to double the load of my work. I didn’t want Amy to work as hard as I did. I missed so much. But she could have the benefit of so much more.”
From the start Amy was able to utilize her minimal residual hearing: “We put binaurals [two hearing aids] on her just like that,” says Clifford, snapping his fingers. Today Amy’s speech is sometimes difficult to understand, switching unexpectedly between high and low registers, yet the youngster has a special charm. “I love to read long stories,” she says, “almost every kind of book except picture books. I’m too old for those!”
Though the Rowleys believe their daughter has not realized the full impact of the Supreme Court’s decision, Amy has a crisp opinion. “I really think having the interpreter was a big help. I wish I didn’t lose the interpreter. I don’t want to go to school anymore.” She worries, “The kids in school may make fun of me because I lost in the Supreme Court.”
Since the school claimed that the interpreter was disruptive, Clifford Rowley believes that he and his wife would not be allowed to provide one at their own expense even if they could afford it. The school district is free to dismiss Amy’s interpreter immediately but has yet to announce its plans.
The Rowleys are determined to keep their daughter in her school. They fear that the alternative, putting Amy in a school for the deaf, would undo all their work. “Amy is equivalent to a high school student in an institution for the deaf,” Nancy explains. “Her reading level now is higher than the graduates’. There would be nobody for her to compete with.”
In an attempt to shield Amy’s feelings, the Rowleys kept her off the witness stand during the trial. “I wouldn’t allow Amy to testify,” says Nancy, “because of the cross-examination. They can be very rude, you know, with children.” The Rowleys themselves were emotionally drained by the experience and financially burdened by the cost of preparing the case and their appeals. Their lawyer, Michael Chatoff, himself deaf, did not charge for his 3,000 to 4,000 hours of legal work. Chatoff, who supports himself as an editor for a legal publishing company, set a precedent of his own during the case: He became the first deaf lawyer to argue before the Supreme Court. The Justices’ questions were processed through a computer and appeared as written English on a video screen before Chatoff as he spoke.
Chatoff’s case was supported by seven briefs from more than 20 organizations with an interest in the education of handicapped people—including the Department of Justice. Despite the apparent setback to the cause, a spokesman for one of those groups, Sy DuBow, legal director of the National Center for Law and the Deaf in Washington, D.C., interprets the decision optimistically: “This conservative Court emphasized that a child can’t be put in a classroom without appropriate supportive and related services.” But Nancy Rowley, for now, has trouble seeing the silver lining. “What’s next?” she asks bitterly. “Are they going to take away Braille books for the blind and ramps for people in wheelchairs?”