Wrestling with the System

  • April 4, 2016

One self-advocate seeks equality in athletics 

by Linnet Sull Overton


At 17, Sam was in his last year in high school and in the fifth year of his wrestling career. He was looking forward to heading to college in the fall to begin his studies in chemical engineering and enjoying his last high school wrestling season. However, as the season began, the athletic association threw him for a loop by changing their rules. 

Sam, who is deaf and wrestles without wearing his cochlear implant, uses an American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter to understand his coach’s directions during a match. Since the seventh grade, almost every night during wrestling season, Sam’s interpreter, Summer, has been with him for practices and matches both at home and on the road. She stays off to the side, moving around the edge of the mat, following Sam’s line of sight. When the coach calls his instructions to Sam, Summer quickly interprets, so Sam can adjust his actions accordingly. Thanks to her work, Sam is able to fully participate in a sport he loves with the same coaching support as all other wrestlers. 

“Summer is a really special person. Her time commitment to Sam is incredible. She’s even traveled to interpret for him at away matches,” says Sam’s mom Belinda. “When the athletic association said Sam’s interpreter could no longer move around the outside of the mat so that Sam could see her throughout matches, we were all surprised and disappointed.”

Stepping Up

For five years Sam had full access to his interpreter during matches. Now, the athletic association raised concerns about the safety of the interpreter and the wrestlers and said they would no longer allow the interpreter to move around in Sam’s sight line at the matches. The association wanted the interpreter to stay in one location throughout the entire match. Belinda tried to explain the situation, but the athletic association was firm. For a time, Sam wrestled without full access to his interpreter during matches. It didn’t take long for Sam to begin losing more matches. He was frustrated at the advantage the other wrestlers had over him when he couldn’t receive similar coaching. So Belinda stepped in to find out what they could change.

Belinda did a lot of research online to find out what other states allowed. She shared the information she found with the athletic association. Unfortunately, they again told her that the interpreter could not move around in Sam’s sightline during matches. Belinda would not be deterred; she wanted her son to understand how important it was to fight for his rights. She did more research to determine what else could be done and realized she needed an attorney. That’s when she reached out to Disability Rights Tennessee.

Stepping Back

In their infancy and early years, children are wholly dependent on their parents and caregivers because they cannot do or speak for themselves. Parents must be their children’s strongest advocates, so they get all their needs met. However, as children grow a parent’s role shifts to empower their children to be their own best advocate. 

“I want Sam to be comfortable asking for what he needs when I’m not around to help. He’s going to college really soon, after all.” Belinda explained. “So when we met with Attorney Martha Lafferty [DRT’s Legal Director], I made sure Sam took the lead.” 

Through an interpreter, Sam told his entire story to DRT. He articulated what he needed and why, deftly explaining how he was at a disadvantage to other wrestlers without his interpreter. Sam made it clear, he wanted to be treated the same as the other athletes. Not better. The same. 

Back on the Mat

Thanks to Belinda’s initiative and Sam’s self-advocacy, Lafferty was able to advocate on Sam’s behalf with the athletic association for his rights under disability law. 

“She [Attorney Lafferty] was very respectful and treated Sam like an adult. She genuinely wanted to know his opinions and choices,” said Belinda. “We couldn’t have gotten Sam what he needed without her. We needed help on the legal level.”

Lafferty successfully educated the athletic association about their obligations under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to ensure Sam had equal access to his coach’s communications during matches. Now interpreters are again allowed to move around the perimeter of the mat during matches as long as they remain at least 5 feet from the outside of the 28 foot circle. With Summer interpreting for him again, Sam understood what was happening in matches moment-to-moment and he closed his wrestling career with the same rights as other athletes and much happier.

Belinda is thankful to Lafferty and DRT, but she is also really glad her support of Sam was able to also develop her son’s ability to self-advocate.

“As a parent, I have learned to step back and let him direct,” said Belinda. “Now he’s learned how to step up for what’s right and handle his own problems in the future.” You can hear the pride in her voice as she continues, “He’s already contacted his college to line up the services he needs when he starts in the fall.”

For self-advocacy tips and information you can visit DRT’s resource page. If you or someone you know is experiencing disability based discrimination, you can contact DRT to request services at 800.342.1660 or gethelp@disabilityrightstn.org.

Disability Rights Tennessee (DRT) is a nonprofit legal services organization that provides free legal advocacy services to protect the rights of Tennesseans with disabilities.

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