LINCOLN, Neb. – The ACLU of Nebraska and the National Association of the Deaf (NAD) are taking up the case of Paul Ruff, a deaf wrestler who lost Nebraska's 2021 state wrestling championship after a referee did not accommodate his communications needs.
Today, the ACLU of Nebraska and the NAD issued a demand letter to the Nebraska School Activities Association (NSAA), calling on the NSAA to take specific actions. The civil rights organizations say the NSAA engaged in unlawful discrimination by denying Ruff reasonable modifications and a fair chance to compete for the championship.
The case dates back to Feb. 2021. Ruff wrestled his way to the first-place match when the NSAA assigned a referee wearing an opaque mask to the match. Although the NSAA and the referee knew Ruff was deaf and relied on lip-reading, the referee kept his mask on, used verbal warnings throughout the match and issued a caution point to Ruff when those warnings went unheard. Because he could not hear the warnings, Ruff was unable to make corrections and lost the match 0-1.
The demand letter says the NSAA violated the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act by failing to provide reasonable modifications and by doubling down in its dismissal of concerns and inaccurate assertions that Ruff understood the referee.
Ruff, a Gering native, has since graduated and is now training for the Deaflympics at Legends of Gold Wrestling in Beresford, South Dakota. He said as he moves forward, he wants to make sure other students don’t face barriers.
“I want other deaf or hard of hearing student athletes, actually all student athletes with disabilities, to be able to have an equal opportunity to compete in the sport they love without discrimination,” Ruff said. “We’re just asking for a level playing field.”
The demand letter urges the NSAA to issue a public apology, revise NSAA bylaws, require annual training, discipline the referee and provide reasonable damages to Paul and his family.
ACLU of Nebraska Interim Legal Director Rose Godinez said the demands reflect that the NSAA violated the law and then made matters worse with an indifferent response.
“The disregard of Paul’s disability and the failure to take responsibility are flatly unacceptable,” Godinez said. “Paul had a right to effective communication with the referee and a fair competition. Instead, he got deliberate indifference from the NSAA and forever missed a fair chance at taking home a state title. It’s past time for the NSAA to take ownership and make things right.”
Brittany Shrader, senior attorney at the NAD, said Ruff’s situation is similar to other disability discrimination cases the organization has successfully litigated.
“Sport governing bodies, like the NSAA, have an obligation to make reasonable modifications so that student athletes like Paul can participate,” Shrader said. “We’re proud to be representing this young man because the rights of people who are deaf or hard of hearing are essential in every aspect of our lives, including school sports. The goal is making sure no other student athletes face discrimination like Paul did.”
Since the match, Paul and his family have worked with the Nebraska Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing (NCDHH) to encourage the NSAA to take steps that would help support deaf or hard of hearing student athletes. At the commission’s request, the NSAA provided cultural competency training in August. The NCDHH says that shortly after the training, the referee in Paul's case contacted the commission to say that he had done nothing wrong.
The demand letter requests a response by mid-January.