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ACLU: Referee failed to accommodate deaf Gering wrestler in state title match

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Paul Ruff made it to the finals of the Nebraska state wrestling meet as a senior at Gering High School, but says he didn't have a "fair opportunity to win" because officials failed to accommodate his disability.

The ACLU of Nebraska and the National Association of the Deaf filed a demand letter on Tuesday on behalf of the Gering graduate, who is deaf and relies on lip reading in matches. 

In the letter, they allege that he was denied adequate communication accommodations by the Nebraska School Activities Association.

The letter asks the NSAA to revise its bylaws and discipline the referee who called Ruff's final match, among several other actions.

At the Feb. 20 tournament in Omaha, Ruff competed against Scottsbluff’s Paul Garcia in the 126-pound Class B final. The match was assigned to the only referee at the competition who was wearing a face mask, according to the letter.

The NSAA and referee knew Ruff was deaf and relied on lip reading, said Sam Petto, a spokesman for the ACLU of Nebraska. He has a cochlear implant but takes it out to wrestle. The referee kept his mask on throughout the match, Petto said.

Ruff lost the match 0-1 after he was given verbal warnings by the referee for line violations. Garcia was awarded his fourth state title in the double overtime win.

“It is clear, as hundreds witnessed and recordings demonstrate, that Paul was denied an equal opportunity to win due to the failure of the NSAA and (the referee),” the letter stated.

The NSAA is still reviewing the letter and is discussing the best way to move forward, said Jay Bellar, executive director. The organization has until Jan. 18 to respond.

In the letter, the ACLU and association accused the NSAA of failing to provide "reasonable modifications." The letter also claimed the NSAA blamed Ruff and his coach after the fact for not making a formal request for accommodation and declared Ruff understood the referee during the match.

The letter asks the NSAA to publicly apologize to Ruff and revise its bylaws to require clear face masks or shields to accommodate deaf wrestlers when face coverings are required due to public health concerns.

It also asks the NSAA to require annual training, to discipline the referee and pay “a reasonable amount” of damages to Ruff and his family.

Ruff is now training for the Deaflympics at Legends of Gold Wrestling in South Dakota. According to a press release, he wants his experience to help change the rules for future wrestlers.

“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 in the press release. “We’re just asking for a level playing field.”

The letter states the NSAA has denied any fault in the incident since the February tournament. After the Nebraska Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing asked the NSAA to take action, the NSAA provided staff cultural competency training in August, Petto said.

Petto said that after the training, the referee called the commission to “say that he had done nothing wrong.”

Petto said he and the Ruff family are hopeful the demands are met with a quick response without the need for litigation.

“We believe there is space to better improve practices and bylaws and not only own the mistake that was made, but also take steps to better protect the rights for wrestlers like Paul,” Petto said. 

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