Deaf law student awarded €3,000 after Griffith College refused to pay for sign language interpretation

Private college calculated cost of Irish sign language interpretation for entire course at €9,000

Griffith College has been ordered to review its disability policy and pay €3,000 to a deaf law student who said it was an “insult” to be told she would have to pay for sign language interpretation herself.

“It is like asking a wheelchair user to build a ramp,” said lawyers who appeared on her behalf in a discrimination claim, which was upheld in a decision published on Friday by the Workplace Relations Commission (WRC).

In Sofiya Kalinova’s complaint under the Equal Status Act 2000, the tribunal found that the private college’s management made “assumptions” about the level of assistance she needed when she asked about access to the course.

Ms Kalinova told the tribunal she had been hoping for “a discussion on her needs” and how she might get access to the course, but got a “blunt no” from Griffith College when she made her inquiries after the 10-week course had already commenced.


She said there were certain “complicated areas of law” she wanted to explore in advance of the King’s Inns entrance exams and hoped to be able to attend the lectures “like everyone else”. Despite her late application, was prepared to pay the full fees.

The complainant said she was “ready to negotiate, but there was no discussion with the respondent”.

She contrasted this with another education provider, which did not provide an interpreter or note-taker, but held an “in-depth meeting” with her to discuss accommodation and provided online class materials and problem questions to her.

“They were supportive,” she said.

Ms Kalinova said the King’s Inns entrance exams were “tough for anyone” and for her “doubly so”.

She passed them but felt she might have got higher marks by taking the Griffith College course first.

The college’s law school head of faculty Karen Sutton said she had calculated the cost of Irish sign language interpretation for the entire course at €9,000, adding that she also calculated the cost of a note-taker as well.

“The income from the whole course was only going to be €10,500,” she said.

Ms Sutton said in her evidence that the school “did not run non-profitable courses” and anticipated that it could have supported a bill of €3,000, though she did not share this information or the €9,000 costing with Ms Kalinova, she said.

Griffith College’s counsel said it “was not trying to shirk its responsibilities” and that the college had been faced with “more than a nominal cost” if it had to provide an interpreter.

She said public colleges could access the Fund for Students with Disabilities for the purpose, but this was not available to Griffith, and this had to be taken into account in deciding what a “nominal cost” would be.

Counsel for Ms Kalinova, instructed by the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission, said the college had taken its €9,000 costing from an “emergency” interpretation service’s rate and “multiplied” it across the entire course – adding that it was “hearsay” in any event as the witness who made the calculation said she had lost her notes.

“It was insulting to ask the complainant to bring her own interpreter, and this was an aggravating [factor] as there is no point to the Equal Status Act if there is such an accommodation. It is like asking a wheelchair user to build a ramp,” her counsel said.

In his decision, WRC adjudicator Kevin Baneham noted the college’s policy required a deaf learner who needed a sign language interpreter to bear the cost themselves.

He wrote that the Equal Status Act requires an evaluation of the individual’s needs – and that the “fixed policy” of Griffith College “deters” it from making any evaluation.

The college “made assumptions” that Ms Kalinova wanted Irish sign language interpretation and a note-taker and assumed she wanted this for the entire course, including the weeks which had already passed. He said the college had made “inferences ... which were not warranted” based on the complainant’s inquiry the previous year.

It was not “mandatory” that the college would have to meet the complainant to make the assessment, but the Equal Status Act required it to have a “clear understanding of the person’s needs”, he wrote.

He said he would accept the evidence put forward by the college “at its height” that just one pricing estimate for sign language was done.

“This does not provide a defence for the respondent as it was predicated on [Ms Kalinova] doing the whole course and priced from only one provider. The respondent ought to have made further inquiries,” he wrote.

Mr Baneham added that it would have been an “obvious” step to share the costing with Ms Kalinova and ask her whether she was looking for the preceding weeks of lectures to be interpreted as well.

The adjudicator found there had been a “contravention” of the Equal Status Act on that basis and ordered €3,000 in compensation to Ms Kalinova.

He also ordered Griffith College to “re-evaluate” its policy in the area “to ensure that it complies with the provisions of the Equal Status Act”.