Deaf referee sues Georgia high school athletic association

A deaf basketball referee is suing the state’s high school athletics association alleging that it discriminated against him on the basis of his disability.

Donald Jacobs, a former basketball player for Georgia School for the Deaf, transitioned his love of the game into refereeing. Jacobs, a DeKalb school custodian, been officiating for four years, mainly in DeKalb County, at the lowest level. As a Tier 3 referee, Jacobs doesn't get much work at varsity and postseason games. Tier 3 referees also receive lower pay. According to the lawsuit, to obtain the higher Tier 1 or Tier 2 ratings, a basketball referee must attend Georgia High School Association referee camps for training and evaluation.

Without an interpreter, Jacobs said he couldn’t understand the training and therefore failed to move above Tier 3 status.

His lawsuit alleges that GHSA violated Title II and Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act because Jacobs has not had the same opportunity to participate in and benefit from the camps as his peers who can hear, resulting in lower evaluations.

“Mr. Jacobs is what high school athletics should be about,” said Mary Vargas, his attorney. “To see someone deaf working as a referee has incredible benefits to students.”

In August 2018, the National Association of the Deaf sent GHSA a letter on behalf of Jacobs requesting that it provide qualified sign language interpreters in referee camps. GHSA responded in writing that it would not provide such interpreters.

“GHSA welcomes Mr. Jacobs to participate in its free, voluntary clinic for basketball referees,” wrote Alan W. Connell, attorney for GHSA. “We have had other deaf officials participate in the clinic in past years, and they uniformly provided their own (American Sign Language) interpreter.”

GHSA is a private, not-for-profit organization to support Georgia school sports and academic endeavors, Connell continued, and the camps aren’t required by the law to provide accommodations for people with disabilities.

Although GHSA doesn’t comment on pending litigation, Jacobs is not an employee, according a spokesman.

“To say that Mr. Jacobs (or anyone else) is a referee ‘with the GHSA’ is not quite accurate,” said Steve Figueroa, GHSA director of media relations, in an email. “The GHSA approves a number of officials’ groups, called associations, and individuals join and work for those associations. They are independent contractors hired by those associations.”

The Job Accommodation Network, an information resource group for people with disabilities, doesn’t provide legal assistance or advice, but noted that Title III (ADA) accommodations do not apply to a “private club.” An entity is a private club for purposes of the ADA if it is a private club under the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, and national origin by public accommodations.

Courts have been most inclined to find private-club status in cases where:

  • Members exercise a high degree of control over club operations.
  • The membership selection process is highly selective.
  • Substantial membership fees are charged.
  • The entity is operated on a nonprofit basis.
  • The club was not founded specifically to avoid compliance with Federal civil rights laws.

Jacobs’ issue isn’t one that many deaf workers encounter, said Howard A. Rosenblum, CEO and director of Legal Services for the National Association of the Deaf.

“Unfortunately, employment is challenging for deaf and hard-of-hearing people in this country despite the existence of federal laws like the Americans with Disabilities Act as well as state laws prohibiting employment discrimination on the basis of disability,” he said. “According to the National Deaf Center, only 48 percent of deaf and hard of hearing people are employed.”

Rosenblum asserts that even though GHSA isn’t Jacobs’ employer, it is a public accommodation as well as a state entity, both of which are required by the ADA to provide equal access to their programs and services to people with disabilities.

“In Donald Jacobs’ case, it is not an employment issue but rather the failure of GHSA to ensure that its programs and services in the contracting and training of referees are accessible to all including deaf individuals.”