Dr. Amy June Rowley, ‘97, still remembers coming home after her first day of kindergarten. Her mother asked her, “How was the interpreter?” Rowley was confused. There hadn’t been one. Her family’s struggles to change that were soon a matter of national attention. Board of Education v. Rowley, which was decided in 1982, was the very first Supreme Court case involving the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

“As I see a lot of deaf children isolated and alone, I can’t help but think of my experience,” Rowley said last week during a presentation she gave as part of the 9th Education and Advocacy Summit, hosted by the Conference of Educational Administrators of Schools and Programs for the Deaf (CEASD), National Association of the Deaf, and Gallaudet University. The event, held in the Hall Memorial Building, focused on the legal and policy challenges regarding the educational placement of deaf and hard of hearing students.

Other presenters included Glenna Wright-Gallo, assistant secretary in the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services at the United States Department of Education, and Charlotte Lanvers from the United States Department of Justice, Disability Rights Section/Civil Rights Section. Leah Wiederhorn of the Law and Advocacy Center at National Association of the Deaf also discussed the most recent Supreme Court decision related to the IDEA and the Americans with Disabilities Act, 2023’s Perez v. Sturgis Public Schools.

“This event was the very first time students and educational professionals had the opportunity to hear directly from individuals involved in landmark court cases in special education along with top officials from the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice, respectively,” says CEASD Executive Director Tawny Holmes Hlibok, Esq. ’04 & G’10, who is also an Associate Professor of Deaf Studies. “In all, it was a very meaningful educational opportunity for us to reflect on the past, present and future of education for deaf students in our country.” In addition, the event was part of an inaugural weeklong program for deaf and hard of hearing youth all over the country, “Capital Connection,” powered by Hands On Travel, an international travel agency established by Terry Giansanti, ’99.

Woman stands on a stage in front of a seated audience. Behind her is a projected image that reads, "Presentation - Reflections on Board of Education v. Rowley, Dr. Amy June Rowley, California State University - East Bay." Below the text is the symbol for that university, which features a tree next to the shore. To the right of the text are two photos: one of the woman as a young girl and the other is the cover of book called, "A Case about Amy" by R.C. Smith.
The presentation by Dr. Amy June Rowley, ’97, focused on her family’s struggles to get her a sign language interpreter at school. The case ended up at the U.S. Supreme Court.

Holmes Hlibok’s presentation during the event provided further context by sharing current statistics. She highlighted the declining number of students attending schools for the deaf, which dropped from 13.6 percent of DHH students with an IEP in 2017 to just 10 percent in 2021. And she noted that teachers of the deaf are at an all-time low, adding another obstacle for families seeking access to resources.

The Rowleys went through such an ordeal 40 years ago, fighting a system that was not set up to help them succeed. Rowley recounted the roller coaster ride she experienced during elementary school. When she finally got access to an interpreter, not only did her grades improve, but she also learned how to connect with her classmates — and play kickball. “I had always played by myself,” she said.

But then that interpreter was fired, and Rowley’s situation reverted back. She recalls spending an entire weekend creating a detailed world map because she had misunderstood an assignment. One day in class, her teacher yanked her ponytail and said, “Pay attention, I’m trying to talk to you.” When they moved to get away from this toxic situation, the school district placed a lien on their house to cover litigation costs.

Rowley’s story is ultimately a happy one. She and her brother ended up in a new school district where deaf families were supported. She went on to earn her Ph.D., and now serves as Coordinator of the American Sign Language Program in the Modern Languages and Literatures department at California State University-East Bay. One of her daughters currently is a junior at Gallaudet University. But as Rowley pointed out, “There is a lot of work left to do. If I have deaf grandchildren, I want them to see improvement over time.”

Holmes Hlibok urged everyone to stay involved in advocating for educational equity and to attend the upcoming CEASD conference, which will be April 18-20 in Spartansburg, SC.

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