May/June, 1998

Book Review

Amy and The Supremes

A review by Mary Johnson

A Case About Amy. by R. C. Smith. Philadelphia: Temple University Press. 1996. 322 pages paperback. $19.95.

"When I began my search, years afterward, for the people I needed to help unravel what was, still, to me, the mystery of the Rowley case," writes R. C. Smith, "it was difficult to find anyone who believed" that Cliff and Nancy Rowley's "efforts to get the school to provide a sign language interpreter for their daughter were justified.".

These sentences appear about halfway through the remarkable but little-noticed book A Case About Amy, by journalist R. C. Smith.

In June, 1982, the Supreme Court ruled 6-3 that Amy Rowley was "receiving an appropriate education without the sign language interpreter." The majority decision, writes Smith, held that "children with disabilities who are making progress in school grade by grade are receiving an appropriate education."

Reading the Supreme Court's majority and the dissenting opinions early in his research, Smith says, "I found myself hard pressed to grasp that the documents referred to the same case." His journey to understand the thinking behind this case informs this fascinating book about the Rowleys, their attorneys and the prejudice that surrounds disability issues. The book is also about Smith's own reactions as he learns about and chronicles our nation's continued failure to understand, much less care about, rights of individuals with disabilities.

Cliff and Nancy Rowley, both deaf, knew their deaf daughter Amy needed a sign-language interpreter to flourish in school. But few others, including the Supreme Court, cared about the "flourishing" part. "Amy was cursed in being deaf and bright, because she would always get by and always be told she was doing fine," writes Smith. She could hear virtually nothing, as we learn in a fascinating section in which Smith is given an audiologist's tape of what Amy could be expected to "hear" -and it turns out what Smith hears is virtually total silence, broken occasionally by sounds of static. Yet Amy was smart enough to be able to get by in class. And the courts would ultimate demand nothing more from educators than they ensure disabled children "get by."

Sign language seemed faintly subversive in the Furnace Woods area of upstate New York - it seemed a refusal to try to be normal. Early on, trouble could be seen brewing for the Rowleys who, as Smith's narrative poignantly shows, wanted only to do right by their young daughter who clearly needed a sign-language interpreter to be able to make sense of the highly oral environment of a grade-school classroom.

The case shouldn't have happened at all, Smith writes. Reading his detailed reporting of the early hearings, moves and countermoves between the Rowleys and an increasing succession of school officials and bureaucrats, one suspects the reason the case went all the way to the Supreme Court was due to certain people connected with the school district who, while they insisted that it was the Rowleys who were "causing trouble," themselves had a gleam in their eye about the prestige of taking a case all the way to the Supreme Court - and putting uppity deafies in their place for asking for more than they deserved. Even before Amy's initial school hearing, school officials were making noises that an interpreter would be "distracting to other children" and if allowed, would occasion "an influx of handicapped children to take advantage of services" in the district.

The issue was quickly framed as one of containing the costs which would surely swamp all school systems if disabled people were allowed under this law to have just anything they wanted. One attorney was "sure that the Rowleys were being used as a test case cooked up somewhere else" by deaf activists.

The Rowleys won the first round. The schools appealed. The Rowleys won the second round too. But one in the three-judge appeals panel dissented. Judge Walter Mansfield, whose dissent became the basis of the school's case to the Supreme Court, "did not read the Act as providing the equal opportunity" that the other judges had found in it; he also had a "strong conviction that people with a hearing loss should ... not be given a crutch of any kind." Mansfield himself had a hearing loss. Smith finds this point fascinating. As should we.

Lisa Walker, "generally regarded as the chief architect" of the Education for all Handicapped Children Act, tells Smith that behind the language of the Supreme Court's majority opinion "is a sort of implied notion, something like 'what can we be expected to do for these handicapped youngsters.' Reading it feels like reading the language of discrimination."

Misleading news coverage influenced the Supreme Court's understanding of the case, as Smith shows in an illuminating chapter. New York Times reporter Linda Greenhouse, who then and now covers the Supreme Court, refused to acknowledge letters from Rowley attorney Mark Chatoff pointing out that she'd misinterpreted the case; she likewise refused to speak with Smith for this book.

People in media who did talk to Smith "seemed always to settle defensively behind one bulwark that they felt could not be assailed: It was too expensive. Whatever individuals with disabilities felt was essential to right the scales that were weighed against them was beyond the power of the commonweal to fund, or it could be done only by sacrificing others who were equally deserving." When she reported on the oral arguments to the Supreme Court, Greenhouse focused on Chatoff's "courage" as a deaf attorney before the Court.

Smith writes, "By August, 1982, the general media had concluded that the Rowley case was about parent's efforts to 'maximize the potential' of their deaf child in a mainstream school. The words 'equal opportunity' had been made to disappear.

"Why were so many newspapers and television stations making plain misstatements of facts in a single case of law"? Smith asks. His efforts to answer this question makes the book a richer read and offers us a cautionary tale for today.

In the Forward, Frank Bowe adds, "Congress has had several opportunities over the years to reverse the Supreme Court decision in Rowley - and has never done so." It remains, says Smith, "the sole substantive ruling by the Supreme Court" on educational rights of disabled children.

The ultimate irony: Had the Rowleys lived almost anywhere else, they would have been provided with an interpreter pretty much as a matter of course. After losing the case - five years in which Amy moved through an elementary school classrooms utterly isolated from the interaction all children should be allowed - the family moved to another community where interpreters were accepted. .

This reality underscores the deeply discriminatory nature of allowing "case by case" decisions. In an enlightened community, this may result in access and integration. What is more likely, though, as A Case About Amy shows all too plainly, is that individuals will be met with discrimination - discrimination even the highest court of the land cannot seem to understand.

The Times, They Aren't A'Changin'

"Daniel Horan was one of the [school] board members who had serious questions at first about appealing Judge Broderick's decision. I asked him what had persuaded him, and he showed me the editorial in the New York Times, which he had clipped and saved."

R. C. Smith, A Case About Amy


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