Banks, a Delgado student with aspirations of being a teacher, had taken a job in 2002 with the college's Office of Disability Services, getting paid $5.25 an hour to take notes during class for deaf students. He embraced his new role, learning sign language and volunteering to help his supervisor, Shelley McAllister, around the office.
"Everything I could not do, Albert did without pay," McAllister says. "Albert not only was a note taker but had taught himself sign language to work with the deaf students. He was only paid for 20 hours a week as a note taker, but was not compensated for assisting students and running errands and helping me with payroll."
Even though a financial aid dispute led Banks to drop classes for the spring 2004 semester, he continued working for the Office of Disability Services. He also began making a list of improvements he thought would make the school more accessible for deaf and other disabled students. Toward the end of the semester, he included his list in a letter to Delgado Chancellor Alex Johnson. He soon heard back from the chancellor's office. An assistant to the chancellor thanked him for his input and steered him toward Dean Cosey.
When Banks met with Cosey on April 7, he came prepared to explain why the students needed the proposals he requested -- an English class for deaf students, an English teacher fluent in sign language, and additional TTY devices (text phones used by the deaf) on campus. (Currently, the campus' only TTY was -- and is -- in a third-floor office.) Banks had also written that some accommodations for the disabled at Delgado were inadequate. "I have observed that there is little support from the administration regarding matters of concern for students with disabilities," he wrote.
But Banks says that when he arrived, Cosey didn't want to talk about teachers, TTYs, broken elevators or automatic doors. "She only gave me 15 minutes of her time," he says. "At the end of the meeting, she fired me."
IN DELGADO'S 2003-2004 SCHOOL YEAR, 231 disabled students attended classes in the fall, with a slight drop to 201 in the spring, according to its Office of Disability Services. Thirty-six deaf or hard-of-hearing students attended classes at Delgado in the spring of 2004, and were served by a staff of 35 employees hired to assist them. Interpreters translate lectures into sign language. Others are hired to take notes as either captionists and stenographers (who are trained and use laptops to type out a lecture), or note takers (who are untrained and take notes by hand). Deaf students generally watch an interpreter while a stenographer or note taker records the lecture. Students who have some hearing ability generally require just a captionist.
Delgado's relatively large population of hearing-impaired students sets it apart from other area colleges and universities. Most report only a handful of hearing-impaired students. (For example, five hearing-impaired students attended the University of New Orleans in the last academic year.) Because of these lower numbers, other local schools don't maintain an in-house staff to accommodate the needs of hearing-impaired students, and instead contract with outside private companies and nonprofit organizations for workers and technology.
In recent years, hearing-impaired students have turned to Delgado as a gateway to higher education. Many say they began their college careers at Delgado to strengthen their academic skills -- mainly English, reading and communication -- before transferring to other universities.
For the past two years at Delgado, the task of making sure every deaf student had someone to interpret and to take notes for them in each class fell to McAllister, the interpreting and captioning services coordinator. As McAllister describes it, her role evolved from that of a coordinator to a "social worker, secretary, advocate for their rights, and friend." In January, she started the We Have a Voice: Deaf and Hard of Hearing Club at Delgado.
McAllister's office was a frequent stop for hearing-impaired students, who dropped by to request her help with everything from getting back money they lost in a vending machine to appealing financial-aid decisions.
As student Brandy Zito, a co-chair of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Club, puts it: "Hearing students can go into their advisor's office and get their concerns addressed. A deaf student would have to find an interpreter and have that person interpret their concerns." Because the college's sign-language interpreters are scheduled primarily for class time, students would bring their impromptu day-to-day interpreting requests to McAllister.
Though McAllister was Banks' supervisor, she says she didn't know in advance that he would be fired. When she found out, she was stunned. McAllister was even more surprised when she heard the reasoning behind his firing: In the meeting with Banks, Cosey had said that because he had dropped classes for the spring semester, he was not a current student and therefore not eligible to work as a note taker.
"I told her that my note-taking handbook did not say that," Banks says. "She pretended that the guidelines had not been around. I told her that the guidelines I was under for the past two years did not say that."
McAllister says she knows what's in the handbook -- she wrote it herself. She immediately contacted Alex Johnson on Banks' behalf. She heard back from Johnson's executive assistant. "I told her that I wrote the handbook, and that being a student was not a stipulation -- the note takers could be outside people," McAllister recalls. "[Johnson's assistant] says the policy that note takers had to be students was a spoken policy."
McAllister wrote Cosey a letter, asking her to rescind Banks' termination, which had been effective immediately.
"I told her that Albert was irreplaceable. Those are people you want to hold onto, because those are the people who are working for other reasons besides pay," McAllister says. "There was no real reason Albert was terminated, other than writing a letter to the chancellor." She adds that because note takers earn only $5.25 per hour and assume a great deal of responsibility, they were already hard to recruit. The college's student-only policy, she says, would shrink the pool of eligible note takers.
Cosey's response letter, dated April 12, acknowledged Banks' contribution to Delgado, but denied McAllister's request. "I cannot ignore the college guidelines," Cosey wrote. "You state that they are unwritten, but they will be in the handbook effective this summer." Cosey agreed to rescind Banks' immediate termination and let him finish out the semester.
Two weeks later, McAllister received more news. She was summoned to a meeting during which Cosey told McAllister that her one-year contract, which ended June 30, would not be renewed and that her position would be restructured. For the new position, the salary would shrink and the academic criterion would be lowered from a master's degree to a bachelor's. The new employee would essentially be a classroom interpreter who also performed light administrative duties. McAllister was told she could re-apply for the position, which she did. The college says it has not hired anyone for the position and still considers McAllister a candidate. McAllister, however, feels strongly that she won't be asked back.
When news of Banks' termination and McAllister's assumed departure hit Delgado's hearing-impaired students, they reacted in a fury. Students and their parents, plus some Delgado employees, began meeting to discuss the situation. Many believed Banks had been fired because he had advocated for better services, and that McAllister's contract was not renewed because she stuck up for him. "We believe that Shelley and Albert's firing could be considered whistleblowers' cases," student Brandy Zito says.
DELGADO OFFICIALS CALL McAllister's situation a non-issue. They make it clear that she was not fired, but instead had a contract that expired. Administrators commented on this story by responding to written questions provided by Gambit Weekly and answering via director of communications Carol Gniady. She emphasizes that McAllister had been hired on a contractual basis, and that such employees know from the beginning that their continued employment is never guaranteed.
"In Ms. McAllister's instance her original appointment was for one year, which was permitted as the grant budget dictated, to be continued for a second year," Gniady says. "At no time was Ms. McAllister ensured continued work beyond the grant term."
Delgado administrators also maintain that note takers have always been required to be students, even though the college's handbook for note takers did not stipulate that requirement in its "Qualification Criteria for Note Takers" section.
"The Office of Disability Services previously recruited note takers on a volunteer basis," Gniady says. "Note takers, in all but recent instances, have been students attending Delgado with at least a 2.0 grade point average, ensuring that the note-taking services provided are appropriate and of value to students. This has been our practice and is not a college policy. A statement has been added to our current note-takers handbook, effective July 1, 2004, that specifies note-takers must be enrolled students' as position criteria."
The federal Carl Perkins Vocational Technology Grant, the amount of which fluctuates from year to year, funded McAllister's position. The 2003-2004 grant was more than $2.3 million, while the 2004-2005 funding will be about 1.9 million, according to the administration.
Gniady points out that because Delgado is receiving at least $382,116 less than the previous year, "with additional cuts possible," the college had to eliminate or restructure five positions besides McAllister's. "Grant positions are as volatile as the funding that provides them to the college," Gniady says, adding that the restructuring of McAllister's position would not affect students' level of services. "Students with disabilities at Delgado were receiving excellent services before the now-defunct coordinator's position was created, and they will continue to receive excellent services with the newly developed position."
The college also dismisses the notion that Banks was fired as retaliation for his advocacy. "Mr. Banks' suggestions were appreciated and certainly do not play any role in the re-structuring of the note-taker qualifications," Gniady says. "Mr. Banks, nor any of the other affected grant workers, were not terminated -- their positions' terms have expired."
Gniady says the college would try to assuage students' fears that their services will be reduced, but doesn't consider it necessary to inform them of the changes in the Office of Disability Services. "In most cases, students aren't usually aware of the changes because there is no interruption of services to them," she says, adding that administrators would talk to any student who contacted them with concerns.
Catherine Castillo, who is deaf, is studying criminal justice at Delgado. She is among the students who say the college should notify students of changes in the Office of Disability Services. Castillo says she emailed a letter to the administration and has not heard back. Gniady says none of the administrators received her email. "They are ignoring us," says Castillo. "With Shelley being gone, I'm scared they're going to cut interpreting services."
YaKeisha Kelly, a deaf student majoring in business administration, says some of the interpreting and note-taking staff has talked about leaving because of McAllister's presumed departure. "It's hard to find somebody to talk to out there," she says. "It's like you're in a different world. We need someone like Shelley, who took care of us and gave us what we need to be successful."
Kelly's mother, Maryellen Kelly, recalls that upon her daughter's graduation in 1998 from the Louisiana School for the Deaf, the school had recommended Delgado as a good place for deaf students. "We were diverted that way," Kelly says, remarking that the services were good before McAllister's arrival, and even better afterward. She believes McAllister was a major factor in the college's substantial deaf-student population.
Other students have contacted private attorneys and organizations for the disabled. Some charge that the school is violating "whistleblowing" laws that make it illegal for an employer to punish an employee for speaking out about unlawful conditions or activities. Many believe Delgado's recent changes violate the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which requires that all government-funded colleges and universities provide reasonable accommodations to disabled students. No court has ever found cost alone to be a valid argument against providing such accommodations, says Marcus Vise, an attorney for the Advocacy Center of New Orleans.
Gniady contends that Delgado not only complies with ADA, but exceeds its requirements. "The services provided to students are comprehensive," she says.
Vise says that the Advocacy Center is aware of concerns about the Delgado shakeup, but it's too soon to tell whether services for disabled students will be affected.
RECENTLY A GROUP OF disabled students, their parents, and some Delgado employees met at the headquarters of the community advocacy nonprofit ACORN to discuss the changes at the Office of Disability Services. Most were convinced that the administration "got rid of" Banks and McAllister as a warning to other employees who might complain about disabled-student services. Some students and parents asked not to be identified, saying their attorneys had warned them not to talk to media. Those employed by Delgado also asked to remain anonymous, saying they feared retaliation by the administration.
Many in the group believe that Delgado officials don't want to spend money on better services to the disabled and didn't like vocal advocates on their payroll.
A major complaint at the meeting, and one outlined in Banks' letter to Chancellor Alex Johnson, was the actual Office of Disability Services. The office had previously been located in Delgado's Building 1, a good spot for mobility-impaired students. The building is the drop-off point for the Mobility Impaired Transportation Services van, and the office had been on the first floor. Last year, the college moved the office to the third floor of a different building, which has no automatic doors, no flashing fire-alarm lights for the deaf, and an elevator that's often broken, say those at the meeting.
"I know that not having easily openable doors is against the Americans with Disabilities Act law," says one Delgado employee who asked not to be identified. "The doors are too heavy and the elevators are unreliable, and there are no sliding doors or doors that will open at the push of a button. It's unsafe."
A visit last month to the Delgado campus confirmed that most of those conditions remained. Delgado, however, says the school has been told by an administrator at the Office of Disability Services that the complaints are not significant.
In her response to Banks' letter, Cosey says "it is neither an oversight nor a mistake that the Office of Disability Services is located on the third floor of Building 2. In the design stages of the Student Services Center, I personally consulted with Ms. Peoples (Gretchen Peoples, disability services coordinator and McAllister's former colleague) for her opinion on the location of the office. She assured me that though it was not preferable, she was not disturbed by the location on the third floor. Though I agree that it would be preferable to have Ms. Peoples' office on the first floor space, constraints do not provide for such a move at this time," Cosey wrote.
"I share your concerns regarding the elevator and the entrance doors, and will follow through with this project to its completion with [the] director of facilities and planning."
Those at the ACORN meeting also complained about allegedly unsafe conditions on campus for mobility-impaired students during fire drills, when elevator use is suspended. (Some options for multi-story buildings include fireproof "safe rooms," emergency elevators for those in wheelchairs, or employees who locate and transport mobility-impaired people during fire drills.) Students recalled fire drills in which they waited for security guards who never showed up to carry those in wheelchairs, and say they had to recruit people to help them bring mobility-impaired students down the stairs. "We had to carry the people in wheelchairs outside, and no one would volunteer," Zito recalls.
Others noted that as of mid-June, there was still just one TTY device on campus, though Cosey had told Banks in April that more of the special phones for the deaf were imminent. In her letter to Banks shortly after their meeting, Cosey says: "I have contacted Louis Wright, Telecommunications Director for the college, regarding your request for TTY service. He has assured me that a representative from the Southern Louisiana Communications office will be on campus next week to begin the process." In the college's written response to Gambit Weekly, Gniady says, "additional equipment is planned for the benefit of our disabled students," but did not specify the type of equipment or when it is expected to arrive on campus.
Some at the ACORN meeting speculated that Delgado was trying to reduce its disabled-student population and to discourage the enrollment of more deaf students. "I was at Delgado for two years and I did not have good service until Shelley arrived," Zito told others. "If she is gone, all of the interpreters will leave and we will not have good service. We come in and ask Shelley about our complaints against teachers or for backup note takers and what type of help we need. She gives us what we need. That is why the deaf have increased at Delgado."
Delgado's administration counters that nothing could be further from the truth. Disabled students' services actually are slated to be expanded, Gniaty says, explaining that the new position will put one more interpreter in the classrooms rather than in an administrative office. Although the new position is currently unstaffed, she says, "services are provided to students seamlessly."
University officials believe McAllister was upset that her contract was coming to an end, and that her reaction may have stirred emotions and undue fears among those she served. Gniady says she wants to reassure disabled students that "there will not be, and has not been, any interruption of services due to the restructuring of [McAllister's] position." And, even though many students insist McAllister is the only college administrator fluent in American Sign Language, Gniady says that at least one other administrator, and the college's interpreting staff, know American Sign Language and are prepared to serve hearing-impaired students' needs during business hours.
After the meeting with Cosey, in which she was told her position would be restructured, McAllister wrote a long letter to Johnson's office, protesting that the new position would not serve the deaf students at Delgado at the level to which they were accustomed. She argued that her administrative duties -- especially coordinating and organizing 35 contract interpreters, captionists, stenographers and note takers -- required her to be in her office fulltime. In response, Gniady says other employees will absorb most of McAllister's duties. Furthermore, she says, some of the responsibilities that McAllister listed -- including helping hearing-impaired students with transfers to other universities -- were "inappropriate" for someone in her position.
SOME OF THE STUDENTS SERVED by the Office of Disability Services say they fear that Delgado is taking a step backward. Some recall the days when note takers were unpaid volunteers. Before class, they remember, professors would solicit other students in the class to take notes for them. The resulting notes could be of poor quality. Other times, no one stepped forward, and the student had to leave class to go find someone else. "You don't want to be a bother to anyone else in your class," says YaKeisha Kelly. "You just want to be part of the class." Many fear that the new written policy on note takers will lead to a return of the volunteer system. McAllister says that up to three of last semester's staff of six note takers are now ineligible to work. Delgado counters that only one -- Banks -- doesn't qualify.
Some hearing-impaired students say they are leaving Delgado because of the pending changes. Lois Dalton says her son, Odairy Dalton, had been considering a transfer but is now positive he doesn't want to return to Delgado. "They're going to lose a lot of students," Dalton says. "They have a good bit of deaf kids there; if you don't have people that can help them in things they need help in, they are going to leave."
Odairy Dalton plans to transfer to Southern University-New Orleans, his mother says. "All those deaf kids, they're not going to stay at Delgado. They're going to move somewhere to a place where they can get the help they need." She says many of the hearing-impaired students depended on McAllister. "Maybe she's working a little bit too much for the children, and that's the way they (members of the administration) feel," Dalton says. "The woman is excellent -- they couldn't have a better person to work with those deaf children."
Brandy Zito says that she plans to leave as soon as she's completed a couple of required classes. "I want something different," she says. "Everything's going to change."
Catherine Castillo's father, Eric Castillo, cautions his daughter to wait and see if services change in the fall. "We can't get involved with who Delgado picks," he tells her. "As long as they continue to provide the level of services that deaf students need, we can't get in the way." But Catherine Castillo says she's angry enough to consider leaving. "I'm thinking about dropping out, because if they cut the interpreting services, what good is it for me to go there if I'm not going to get the services I need?" she asks, speaking through an interpreter. "But I don't want to give up. I want to fight for the deaf and for our school and for our future. I don't want the administration to take advantage of us. I want them to listen to our voices and I want them to know that we are not going to back down."