Organizations back Nebraska wrestler’s ADA push for deaf athletes: ‘We’re just asking for a level playing field’

ACLU of Nebraska: Referee completed cultural competency training but still denied wrongdoing
The ACLU of Nebraska and the National Association of the Deaf are pressing the NSAA for an apology after a deaf wrestler lost the championship match in February
Published: Dec. 30, 2021 at 1:25 PM CST|Updated: Dec. 30, 2021 at 6:53 PM CST
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OMAHA, Neb. (WOWT) -The ACLU of Nebraska and the National Association of the Deaf are taking up the case of Paul Ruff, a deaf wrestler who lost Nebraska’s 2021 state wrestling championship after he says a referee did not accommodate his communications needs.

“All he’s looking for is to make sure the NSAA owns that mistake. Paul knows that if he had those signals he needs, a way to read the referee’s lips, he still may have lost... but he would’ve had a fair chance at that competition,” said Sam Petto, communications director for ACLU of Nebraska.

On Tuesday, ACLU of Nebraska and the NAD issued a demand letter to the Nebraska School Activities Association, saying the NSAA violated the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act by failing to provide reasonable modifications and by doubling down in its dismissal of concerns and inaccurate assertions that Ruff understood the referee.

The case dates back to February 2021 when the NSAA assigned a referee wearing an opaque mask to Ruff’s first-place match.

Ruff uses a cochlear implant but takes it out while wrestling, leaving him completely deaf. He said the loss of hearing wasn’t the issue, it was that the referee wouldn’t lower his mask to allow Ruff to read his lips. Because he could not hear the warnings, Ruff says he was unable to make corrections and lost the match 0-1.

Ruff, a Gering native who has since graduated, is now training for the Deaflympics at Legends of Gold Wrestling in Beresford, S.D. He said as he moves forward, he wants to make sure other students don’t face barriers.

The demand letter urges the NSAA to issue a public apology, revise NSAA bylaws, require annual training, discipline the referee and provide reasonable damages to Paul and his family.

Petto said their requests will have ripple effects far beyond this incident. “It’s not just about making things right for Paul, it’s seeking change for other student-athletes that will come up after that.”

“The disregard of Paul’s disability and the failure to take responsibility are flatly unacceptable,” ACLU of Nebraska Interim Legal Director Rose Godinez said. “Paul had a right to effective communication with the referee and a fair competition. Instead, he got deliberate indifference from the NSAA and forever missed a fair chance at taking home a state title. It’s past time for the NSAA to take ownership and make things right.”

The Nebraska School Activities Association has not yet responded to Six News’ requests for comment, but in February, their Executive Director told 6 On Your Side, he believed the Ref and Ruff communicated just fine.

“There’s thumbs up that he understood. There’s hand signals you give, that he looked at,” Bellar said.

But Ruff said the referee misunderstood his thumbs up and added it was never a confirmation — it was a question.

I was asking him, “Is this good? Is this what you want?” Ruff said.

ACLU of Nebraska also tells 6 News that after the incident, the Nebraska Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing requested cultural competency training to refresh referees on how to make proper modifications for student-athletes under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The referee did in fact participate, but allegedly continued to deny any error on his part.

‘Unfortunately, after training, it’s my understanding from the commission, that the referee in Paul’s case reached out to say that nothing was wrong. So we see there is still evidence that more needs to be done,” Petto said.

A response has been requested by mid-January.

Read the NSAA training document

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