Deaf comedian receiving pushback over interpreter services

Not all establishments are accommodating

ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WROC-TV) - There are more than 19,000 deaf men and women in the Rochester community – and we have one of the youngest deaf populations in the country.

However, many still find it a struggle to enjoy certain activities or businesses because of a lack of awareness about the Americans with Disabilities Act, and what rights that affords deaf people.

Tom Willard says he loves standup comedy and wants his hearing impaired friends to be able to enjoy it too, but he says he's received pushback from some local establishments over hiring interpreters as required by law – and is determined to make sure this community is not silenced.

Willard is a deaf comedian, and while he likes to joke around, deaf rights are an issue he takes seriously.

“My next standup act is called ‘Wheelchair vs. Deaf,’ and it talks about all the things society does for wheelchair people – the parking, the ramps, the bigger bathrooms,” Willard said. “And they don’t have to ask for any of it, it’s just done. But we deaf people have to ask and most of the time, they say no.”

Some comedy clubs have been immediately accommodating in providing an interpreter, but he says others, like Boulder Coffee, have not.

“They just didn’t want to pay for it. They wanted the comics to pay for the interpreter, but the law says no, it's the business,” Willard said. “It’s their responsibility, just like a ramp. You don’t make a wheelchair person bring their own ramp – you don’t make a deaf person bring their own interpreter.”

Steven Modica, a lawyer who deals in disability and discrimination law, says the Americans with Disabilities act is straightforward when it comes to this issue.

“I think it's pretty clear that a comedy club would be required to provide that as long as there was advanced notice given,” he said.

Tom says he's been asking for an interpreter for Boulder's open mic night since May – and he forwarded us the email exchanges to prove it.

Boulder responded with a statement saying, "Following the request, we posted flyers in the cafe and moved forward with a search for volunteers on social media. Our goal was to find a volunteer for our open mic comedy night."

“That’s another issue – people always expect interpreters to be volunteers,” said Willard. “They don’t understand interpreters are professionals who go to school for many years to learn their job.”

He says the responsibility of finding and paying an interpreter falls on the establishment – and Modica agrees, adding that sometimes businesses unfamiliar with the deaf community either don’t understand the law – or are afraid of the cost.

“This is an example of where I think sometimes people are frightened about the cost and don’t always make decisions we'd like them to make,” said Modica.

The club did say they are willing to pay an interpreter if they can’t find a volunteer. However, when asked how long before they decide to actually pay for one, they said they didn’t have a timeline.

Boulder additionally said, "We are not fully educated regarding our responsibilities legally in this specific matter," but they are working to find solutions.

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