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EAST BRUNSWICK, NJ–Richard Koenigsberg has been a teacher at East Brunswick High School for thirty years, where he is an award-winning educator of sociology and film.
He has also been deaf since the age of nineteen.
For much of his teaching career, Koenigsberg says his disability has not been a significant hinderance to his job– Koenigsberg reads lips and uses normal verbal skills, and previous East Brunswick Board of Education administrations had been accommodating of his needs.
That all changed four years ago, when new administrators, who, in Mr. Koenigsberg’s words, had “no understanding of my being profoundly deaf,” took over.
Koenigsberg sued the Board of Education and filed charges with the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission, which ended with a settlement requiring the Board of Education to provide him with a Computer Assisted Real-Time Translation (CART) reporter.
The CART reporter shows text on a screen, typed in real time by a stenographer, and, as per the January 2015 settlement, must be provided at all meetings that Koenigsberg is contractually required to be at.
The CART services is also to be provided “during additional meetings at the discretion of the Administration provided they are requested by Complainant in a timely fashion.”
Wanting to support his students who were graduating, Koenigsberg requested to have a CART reporter present for the high school’s 2015 graduation ceremony, where the speakers would be too far away from him use lip-reading.
These requests, made repeatedly since January 9, 2015, were either ignored or plainly denied.
Koenigsberg views this as an act of discrimination, and he reached out to the state’s largest newspaper for help.
“I mostly teach seniors who are graduating and they always ask me to attend. I enjoy seeing them graduate and sharing this experience with them,” Koenigsberg explained to the Star-Ledger’s Karin Price-Mueller.
“From my point of view this is an act of discrimination since I am being deprived of the same experiences as my hearing colleagues,” Koenigsberg said.
Curiously, he was assigned to proctor exams on the day of East Brunswick’s 2015 graduation, and therefore could not attend. But Koenigsberg diligently requested a CART reporter far in advance for the 2016 ceremony.
Superintendent Victor Valeski responded that, “although the district provides CART services for professional development and meetings as specified in the agreement, there is no requirement to provide CART services for the graduation ceremony.”
Koenigsberg wrote back to Valeski requesting reconsideration, writing that “I should be afforded the same opportunity as the hearing staff to participate and have the same experience as my colleagues… The legal agreement states that I have the right to request CART for other events as they occur.”
After not receiving a response from the administration, another request for a CART reporter was filed, to which Koenigsberg was recommended to review the settlement agreement.
Frustrated, Koenigsberg contacted Price-Mueller for help. Her “Bamboozled” series, which also appears on the paper’s website NJ.com, focuses typically on helping consumers get answers and justice.
The newspaper contacted the district, left messages for Superintendent Valeski, and submitted an Open Public Records Act request asking for district emails and documents relating to the CART request and graduation.
In response, the administration began reviewing its options for hearing-impaired accessibility, including making all of graduation closed-captioned on a jumbo screen.
After students started a petition in support of the cause, the district gave up on the battle, and approved the request for Koenigsberg.
“I am happy that the administration will do the right thing in providing accommodations for me,” said Koenigsberg. “However, it is disappointing to me that I had to get Bamboozled to advocate for me in getting the administration to listen to me.”